26 September 2023

The Theresa May effect: Why we are seduced by male incompetence

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Tomas Chamorro-Premusic* says it’s time to coin the ‘Theresa May effect’ — when a female leader deemed inept is replaced with a far more incompetent man.

Theresa May was still the UK Prime Minister when my latest book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (And How To Fix It)?, was released earlier this year.

The book is based on a simple premise: that a major obstacle preventing women from becoming leaders is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men.

In other words, if we want to make it easier for competent women to get to leadership roles, we should start by making it harder for incompetent men.

In response to this argument, many men (and a few women) have since written to me to remind me that ‘there are also incompetent women who become leaders’.

This is of course true, but it simply doesn’t happen with the same level of frequency as it does with men.

Indeed, while incompetence can be found in both women and men, it is actually much harder for women to become leaders when they are incompetent.

Like most things in life, competence and incompetence are relative things.

They are only meaningful measures of human accomplishments when we compare them with other people’s output.

Because women are far less likely than men to become leaders, there is generally much more scrutiny on how they perform when they get there, precisely because they stand out as rare exceptions to the typical gender ratio.

So, it was not a total surprise that my UK colleagues kept questioning my argument during the not-so-happy years of Theresa May’s regime.

Whether they liked or disliked the Brexit idea, they kept on asking me, “But what about Theresa May?” highlighting her rather opportunistic (and very politician-like) decision to ‘lean in’ for an impossible job that involved going against her own principles just for the sake of seizing power.

Never mind the fact that her task – pleasing most people on both sides – was nearly impossible, or the much smaller detail: that the problem she was trying to solve was itself caused by her predecessor.

Perhaps it is time to coin the ‘Theresa May effect’, then?

Before we define it, let me illustrate it with the very tweet, by Sara Gibbs, that prompted this post: “Theresa May right now is every woman who’s ever said an idea in a meeting and had everyone ignore her, only for a man to say the same idea two minutes later and have everyone congratulate the fuck out of him.”

Gibbs’s tweet encapsulates the very notion of mansplaining, highlighting the sad but unquestionable double standards that are generally applied to men and women.

There’s hardly any need to inspect evidence on this, as most people will have experienced similar events and can draw from their own personal experience.

But since the plural of anecdote is not data, it is useful to consider a few unrelated research studies, all off which may be regarded as symptomatic of the same Theresa May effect or syndrome.

For example:

(1) Data from 360-degree feedback survey show that women outperform men on 17 out of 19 critical leadership capabilities.

This is in stark contrast with the fact that men rate their own potential and performance much more positively (and distortedly so) than women do theirs.

Yet in an age where leadership talent is rather complex, we cling to what we can see, and fall prey to our instincts.

In line, evolutionary psychologists have long made the case for the fact that self-deception is hugely adaptive: the more you fool yourself into thinking that you are great, the more you will be able to fool other people into thinking the same.

Delusions of grandeur thus become self-fulfilling.

Delusions of grandeur help incompetent men beat their more competent and self-aware female counterparts for leadership roles.

As Mark Twain explained: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

This combination, which psychologists named the Dunning Kruger effect (the fact that idiots and experts don’t differ much in their self-perceptions of ability) is far more common and persuasive in men than women.

(2) Even when men and women don’t differ in what they do, there’s a tendency to reward men more than women.

This is what a recent study using sensing technology shows: men get celebrated, rewarded, and promoted at work for basically doing the same thing women do.

Theresa May’s Brexit deal was broadly the same as Boris Johnson’s (if not better).

And yet, she was duly replaced with a man who was incapable of producing anything different, let alone better.

Scientific studies show that overconfident and narcissistic men are better at selling their creative ideas to others even when they are not creative at all.

This is why telling women to be more confident is a stupid idea: first, we detest displays of overconfidence in women; second, the solution to a world run by overconfident fools is not to make the other half of the world overconfident, too.

(3) We seem to prefer male incompetence to female competence, at least when it comes to leadership.

As meta-analytic reviews show, female and male leaders are mostly similar in their leadership effectiveness potential.

Studies also show that women are generally more empathetic, ethical, coachable, and emotionally intelligent than men.

Ergo, the best gender diversity intervention would be to focus on talent rather than gender, which would not just increase the proportion of women in leadership roles, but also improve the quality of our leaders, enabling more competent men, who display these feminine traits, to get to the top, too.

Sadly, however, all this is unlikely to happen.

The main reason, as the Theresa May effect shows, is that we are seduced by male incompetence.

We seem to gravitate towards overconfident, narcissistic, and reckless men irrespective of their talent for leadership.

So long as these criteria don’t change, we should not expect the quality of our leaders to improve.

This is not only bad for competent women, but also men.

* Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes about people at work. He tweets at @drtcp. His website is drtomas.com.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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