A recent meta-analysis (integration of a large number of studies on the same subject) by Northwestern University reveals that most people still use gendered stereotypes when thinking about leadership. The consequence of this is that “Women are viewed as less qualified or natural in most leadership roles…and secondly, when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous.” These biases against women are most likely contributing to the ever-present leadership gap in the U.S.—women still only hold 17% of seats in Congress and in 2008 only 15.7% of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies were women.
Previous research found that women are perceived as inherently having more “communal” qualities such as being compassionate. Men, on the other hand, were perceived by participants in the studies as inherently having more “agentic” qualities such as being assertive. Research found that it is agentic qualities that are perceived as being an important element of leadership. The Times of India sums up, “Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them.” Both female and male participants in the studies that made up the meta-analysis saw men as being inherently better leaders than women.
It is incredibly disheartening that, as Laura Hibbard commented, in an era where “women hold some of the most powerful positions in the United States (see: Hilary Clinton, Secretary of State, Nancy Pelosi, [Former] Speaker of the House, etc.) we still haven’t really changed the way we think about leadership roles and women.” However, the study did show some encouraging trends. The meta-analysis collected data since 1973 so could see if attitudes towards women in leadership are changing over time. Most people still view leadership roles as inherently male but Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and a co-author of the study told Hibbard, “women should be encouraged that leadership is culturally not as extremely masculine as it was in the past…That’s progress because it makes leadership roles more accessible to women and easier to negotiate when in such a role.”
To learn more about the effort to see more women in leadership positions and to find out how you can help in that effort, visit The White House Project’s website.