The C-Suite or the Sandbox: Has Anything Changed for Women as Leaders?


The first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde (second from left), and the first female chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen (right), take part in an IMF conference in Washington, D.C.

In the 2016 presidential election, it is highly likely that at least one of the candidates for president or vice president will be a woman. Several high-profile companies and organizations have recently named women as their heads, such as GM’s Mary Barra, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, and the U.S. Federal Reserve's Janet Yellen. Still others have sacked their women executives, such as The New York Times’ firing of Jill Abramson.

Are women finally breaking through the proverbial “glass ceiling?”

“It’s complicated,” answers IPR social psychologist Alice Eagly, an internationally recognized researcher on gender and leadership. She recently described an ongoing project that reveals good news, bad news, and mixed results for what researchers are finding, what people are thinking, and what pundits are saying.

Alice Eagly

Research on the topic is uncovering subtle but important differences in how men and women lead, with women displaying slightly more of the leader behaviors found effective by researchers. Some management studies find women are rated more favorably than men on various aspects of management competency.

The public also seems to favor seeing more women in leadership roles: In polls, 60 percent or more of respondents agree that a country would be better off if more women were in power. “Almost everyone says, ‘Sure, I’d vote for a qualified woman,’ in a presidential election,” Eagly said, noting that some might be succumbing to the pressure of political correctness in answering the question.

Despite talk about putting more women in CEO and elective political offices, Eagly said, long-held stereotypes of gender and leadership continue to reinforce perceptions that women do not lead as effectively as men. Eagly noted that gender stereotypes depict men as dominant, assertive, and “take charge.” Women are viewed as nice, friendly, and sensitive. Leaders are perceived as self-confident, assertive, taking charge, solving problems, and inspiring people.

Thus, gender stereotypes of men match well with those held for leaders—not so for women. This “think–manager/think–male” phenomenon, examined by Eagly and others, demonstrates that both men and women tend to equate leadership mainly with male characteristics, generating doubts when it comes to envisioning women as leaders. Women leaders also face contrasting pressures from the female gender role and leadership roles, creating “a double bind between being tough versus being nice,” Eagly said. “And women get into a lot of trouble when they are not ‘nice.’”

To fix this problem of role “incongruity,” Eagly suggests people would have to regard leadership as requiring feminine as well as masculine traits--and women would have to add “assertive,” culturally masculine qualities to their repertoire. Eagly argued that these trends are, in fact, present. Expectations for leaders already reflect more feminine qualities, and women now manifest more ambition and assertiveness than in the past—all the while retaining their feminine qualities. If these trends persist, women and men should eventually have equal access to leadership roles.

“Would the world look different if women held more positions of power?” Eagly asked.

It is likely, she answered, as it has been shown that women’s attitudes and values are more compassionate than those of men. Female legislators advocate more for the public good, fewer layoffs occur when women directors are in charge, and, as research by IPR economist Lori Beaman has shown, female village leaders in India act more for the public good and bolster girls’ aspirations to go to school.

Encouraging trends are present and there is steady progress in women’s access to leadership roles, Eagly concluded, but only time will tell if the differences in the values that women and men promote as leaders  will persist as women achieve more equality in society.

Alice Eagly is James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences, professor of psychology, and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit (top): © International Monetary Fund used under the Creative Commons license.