Women as Leaders: Do They Make a Difference?

They tend to have “communal” priorities that shape corporate policies on social responsibility
woman leader

The essentials

  • Social psychologist Alice Eagly says culturally “masculine” traits are typically associated with leadership, creating a “gender-leadership cultural mismatch for women.”
  • Women, who frequently see themselves as more communally oriented, place greater importance on positions that they view as “helping people, making the world a better place, getting rid of suffering, and serving humanity.”
  • Eagly says women are interested in being leaders in organizations where they can act for the public good, while men are more interested in creating profit for stakeholders.

If you had asked someone in 1953 whether they preferred having a male or female boss, 66 percent of them would have answered the same way: male. A meagre five percent would have favoured having a woman at the top. Sixty years later, the same question garners very different results. In a 2013 survey, nearly half of respondents indicated they had no preference about a leader’s gender, while 33 percent said they preferred a man and 20 percent a woman.

For Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University who has been studying gender since the late 1970s, these statistics make one thing clear: that while women have made great strides as leaders in recent decades, there is still work to be done.

“It’s a huge shift towards tolerance but it’s not equal desirability,” she said at a public lecture at the Smith School of Business of Queen’s University. “We’re not there yet in people’s attitudes, but it’s a massive shift over time.”

While women now outpace men when it comes to earning university degrees, Eagly noted that progress has still not translated into parity at the boardroom table. Describing the leadership gender gap as a “worldwide phenomenon,” she said that while more women are ascending the corporate ladder, they are not necessarily landing the top jobs. “There are more women leaders than in the past, certainly way more than when I was a child, but there is slow progress on the most powerful roles, particularly in corporate leadership but also in political leadership.”

Cultural Gender

In her presentation, Eagly explored the notion of “cultural gender” and the gender stereotypes that dominate in western society. “That men are, we often say, agentic – that is they’re more competitive, aggressive, courageous, dominant,” she said. “And that women are more communal – more sympathetic, gentle, sensitive, supportive, and compassionate…wonderful human qualities that are actually more evaluatively positive than the masculine traits.”

The challenge is that these culturally “masculine” traits are typically associated with leadership, creating what Eagly termed a “gender-leadership cultural mismatch for women.”

She acknowledged that while the stereotypes around leadership have taken on more communal qualities in recent years – such as the expectation that leaders have social skills – they still generally skew male. This makes women, who are not seen as “matching” the job, more susceptible to prejudice once they do approach the upper echelons of management. 

Adding to the pressure is the fact that women in leadership roles face what Eagly referred to as “the double bind” — women are expected to lead assertively while demonstrating stereotypically female behaviours such as friendliness and politeness. Men are generally not burdened with having to balance the two roles in the same way.

“Women who assert themselves can face a backlash for being too confident or ambitious. On the other hand, if you’re too nice. . . you’re seen as too weak”

Eagly cited research demonstrating that women who assert themselves can face a backlash for being too confident or ambitious, or for demonstrating anger. “On the other hand, if you’re too nice you tip over into the feminine and then you don’t have any authority,” she said. “You’re seen as too weak. So that’s the double bind.”

Eagly’s recent research examines the issues of preference and motivation, questions that are frequently absent from discussions around gender and leadership. “There is some degree of choice in what we do – we’re not totally coerced by social norms,” she said. “And so, we need to go there to see how individual think about their goals.”

What that means, she believes, is that people tend to seek jobs that reflect their personal goals. For women, who frequently see themselves as more communally oriented, it means placing a greater importance on positions that they view as “helping people, making the world a better place, getting rid of suffering, and serving humanity.”

Translated to leadership, it means women are more frequently found in senior positions within education, where they hold between 30 and 64 percent of the top jobs (30 percent of college and university presidents, 52 percent of school principals, and 64 percent of education administrators), and the nonprofit sector, where 45 percent of CEOs are women. When averaged across all institutions and sectors in the economy, women hold only 28 percent of CEO positions.

The Communal Edge

“In leadership roles, women are interested in being leaders in organizations where they can act for the public good, and men are more interested in being leaders in organizations in which they can create profit for stakeholders,” she said. “It’s not there aren’t women leaders, it’s that they are placed differently.”

The question at the crux of Eagly’s presentation was whether, beyond gender equality and social fairness, female leadership really matters. She believes they do, in part due to their communally-oriented approach. As legislators, women more frequently advocate for the interests of children, healthcare, and education. Having more women in corporate board of directors is correlated with more charitable giving, better environmental practices, and higher levels of corporate social responsibility.

“Women tend to have more priorities in a communal direction,” said Eagly, “and that’s how they make a difference when they occupy leader roles.”

Meredith Dault

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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