The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence

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7. Conclusions

7.1. What has research established concerning female advantage and disadvantage?

Research has shown that women possess both advantages and disadvantages as leaders, with the disadvantages arising primarily in roles that are male-dominated or otherwise defined in masculine ways. Many of the difficulties and challenges that women face arise from the incongruity of the traditional female role and many leader roles [Eagly & Karau, 2002]. This incongruity creates vulnerability whereby women encounter prejudicial reactions that restrict their access to leadership roles and negatively bias judgments of their performance as leaders.

Easing this dilemma of role incongruity requires that female leaders behave extremely competently while reassuring others that they conform to expectations concerning appropriate female behavior. The double-standard requirement to display extra competence makes it especially difficult for women to gain recognition for high ability and outstanding achievements [Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997 and Foschi, 2000]. Therefore, successful female leaders generally work hard and seek leadership styles that do not unnecessarily elicit resistance to their authority by challenging norms dictating that women be egalitarian and supportive of others.

Given these constraints, transformational leadership may be especially advantageous for women [Eagly et al., 2003 and Yoder, 2001] because it encompasses some behaviors that are consistent with the female gender role's demand for supportive, considerate behaviors. The transformational repertoire, along with the contingent reward aspect of transactional leadership, may resolve some of the inconsistencies between the demands of leadership roles and the female gender role and therefore allow women to excel as leaders. Fortunately for women's progress as leaders, this positive, encouraging, inspiring style appears to have generalized advantages for contemporary organizations [Avolio, 1999, Bass, 1998 and Lowe et al., 1996].

One feature of some of the findings that we have presented is that their magnitude is small. Critics such as [Vecchio, 2002] often suggest that such effects are therefore unimportant. Contrary to this view, methodologists have agreed that effects that can seem quite small in terms of most statistical metrics can have practical importance in natural settings (see [Abelson, 1985 and Bushman & Anderson, 2001]). For example, the relation between taking aspirin and the prevention of heart attacks in a randomized double-blind experiment was only r=.034, yet this effect corresponded to 3.4% fewer people experiencing heart attacks, a drop meaningful enough to induce researchers to end the experiment prematurely because it was deemed unethical to deny the benefits of the treatment to the individuals in the control group [Rosnow & Rosenthal, 1989]. Similarly, small biases against women in performance evaluations, when repeated over individuals and occasions, can produce large consequences in terms of the distribution of women and men in senior management [Martell, 1999 and Martell et al., 1996].

7.2. Why are women rising?

The analyses that we have presented so far do not sufficiently explain the shift toward more women leaders. To address this, we suggest that several causes are at work, eroding female disadvantage and augmenting female advantage. Specifically, at the individual level, women's characteristics have changed. At the organizational level, leadership roles have changed and practices that constituted barriers to promoting women into positions of authority have eroded. At the cultural level, appointments of female leaders have come to symbolize progressive organizational change. We discuss each of these factors in turn and also acknowledge that the more distal causes of these changes are embedded in the weakening of the traditional family division of labor, the large increase in job roles that are managerial, and general political, bureaucratic, and economic pressures that favor gender equality (see [Jackson, 1998]).

7.2.1. Women have changed

As women shift more of their time from domestic to paid labor, they assume the personal characteristics required to succeed in these new roles [Eagly et al., 2000]. In addition to women's increased human capital investments, women's psychological attributes and related behaviors have changed in concert with their entry into formerly male-dominated roles. Especially relevant to leadership are findings showing that the career aspirations of female university students [Astin et al., 1997], women's self-reports of assertiveness, dominance, and masculinity [Twenge, 1997 and Twenge, 2001], and the value that women place on job attributes such as freedom, challenge, leadership, prestige, and power [Konrad et al., 2000] have all become more similar to those of men. To the extent that risk-taking is relevant to leadership, it is notable the sex difference in the tendency to take risks has decreased [Byrnes et al., 1999]. Given these changes, it is not surprising that social perceivers believe that women are becoming more masculine, particularly in agentic attributes, although not decreasing in feminine qualities [Diekman & Eagly, 2000].

7.2.2. Leadership roles have changed

Some research indicates that the incongruity between leader roles and the female gender role have diminished. For example, [Schein, 2001] “think manager, think male” studies have revealed that, in the United States, but not in several other nations, women, but not men, have adopted a more androgynous view of managerial roles. Although a definitive description of secular trends in stereotypes of leaders and managers awaits an appropriate meta-analysis, these changes may be modest. In general, consistent with the idea of cultural lag [Brinkman & Brinkman, 1997], the ideological aspects of culture, including stereotypes, are slower to change than shifts in social structure such as the actual content of roles. Therefore, gradual change in stereotypes of leaders is not inconsistent with change in leadership roles to emphasize qualities that are more consistent with the female gender role than traditional characterizations of leadership. As leadership roles change, a larger proportion of them provide environments that welcome women's managerial competence.

7.2.3. Organizational practices have changed

Also important to women's rise is change in organizational practices, brought about in part by civil rights legislation, especially Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1967, which deemed sex discrimination in employment illegal in the United States. With the authority of such laws, discrimination has been challenged in the courts, and some organizations were then required to give women access to leadership roles. For example, several women in high executive positions in high-tech industry, including Carly Fiorina (CEO of Hewlett-Packard) and Patricia Russo (CEO of Lucent), spent critical periods of their careers at AT&T, which had been challenged for what the government deemed its “blatantly unlawful” discrimination against women [Black, 2003]. After signing a US$38 million consent decree containing provisions to remedy its discrimination, AT&T allowed quite a few women to rise as line managers, and some of these women have achieved distinction as executives.

These legal challenges have continued. Currently in the courts is a discrimination suit against Wal-Mart, which, if granted class-action status, would cover at least 500,000 female employees [Zellner, 2003]. This lawsuit may open up equitable managerial opportunities for women in the world's largest retail organization. Although obtaining legal remedies for sex discrimination is time-consuming, costly, and not always successful, they have proven to be a powerful force for increasing women's opportunities in managerial careers.

Organizational changes that are not necessarily driven by lawsuits have also increased the representation of women in leadership positions. To the extent that organizations have become less hierarchical and more driven by results than “old boy” networks, they reward talent over gender and present a more level playing field than do traditional organizations [Klein, 2000]. In addition, the culture of many organizations now embraces the benefits of including women and minorities among their leaders. Such organizations may support women by encouraging mentoring and networking and establishing more family-friendly policies. Also critical is a clear message from executives at the top of the organization endorsing equitable opportunities. Special efforts of these types have increased women's access to leadership roles. For example, at Deloitte and Touche, a Big Five accounting firm that put forth such effort, the number of women in leadership positions tripled between 1992 and 1998 [Trimberger, 1998]. Also, because the U.S. federal government has strongly endorsed equal employment opportunity, it is noteworthy that, in the Senior Executive Service of a cabinet-level U.S. federal department that was particularly noted for its commitment to equal opportunity, female applicants fared somewhat better than equally qualified male applicants in recent years [Powell & Butterfield, 2002].

7.2.4. The culture has changed

In view of changes in leader roles and organizational practices, female leaders have come to symbolize new types of leadership that connote greater effectiveness and synergy than leadership of the past [Adler, 1999]. Appointments of women signal an organization's departure from past practices and help it to capture the symbols of innovation and progressive change. For example, the choice of Shirley Tilghman as President of Princeton University expressed this Ivy League university's transition to a progressive institution that fosters the talents of women as well as men [Zernike, 2001]. This new cultural symbolism may be fueled in part by exposure of the illegal and unethical business practices of Enron and other businesses led by men (e.g., [Lavelle et al., 2002]). Thus, after Smith Barney was exposed for fraudulent financial research, Sallie Krawcheck became CEO, symbolizing competence and honesty [Rynecki, 2003].

This symbolic shift in the meaning conveyed by appointments of women to high positions is one force underlying the surge of claims of female advantage in trade books and newspaper and magazine articles in the United States. However, concerning the specific issues of sex differences in leadership style and effectiveness, scientific evidence produces the narrower conclusions that we have set forth in this article. Nonetheless, consistent with this evidence, gender-fair organizations substantially enlarge the pool of talent from which they select their managers, and, for many managerial roles, the selection of women can increase organizations' chances of obtaining leaders who are especially effective under modern conditions.

1 In this article, the terms sex and sexes denote the grouping of people into female and male categories. The terms sex differences and similarities are applied to describe the results of comparing these two groups. The term gender refers to the meanings that societies and individuals ascribe to these female and male categories. We do not intend to use these terms to give priority to any class of causes that may underlie sex and gender effects.
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