27 September 2023

Vote people: Women rate well on leadership, so why not elect them?

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Jena McGregor* says a new survey shows women are rated better on almost all leadership attributes, so why are so many people reluctant to vote for them?

Image: Sefa Ozel

A wide-ranging survey by the Pew Research Center — dropped in a US midterm election year when a record number of women have been nominated for seats in the House of Representatives — has drawn attention for the stark numbers it showed.

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump examined its look at the “density” of women in leadership roles, with university presidents having the most women (a whopping 30 per cent) and CEO jobs having the fewest (just 5 per cent).

The New York Times looked at the differences between how the parties view the issue.

NPR analysed the differences in how male and female Democrats, or male and female Republicans, feel about the gender and leadership roles.

(For instance, nearly half of Republican women say discrimination keeps women out of office, triple the 14 per cent of Republican men who say the same.)

But the Pew survey also looks at another interesting disconnect.

It examined the leadership skills people believe women bring to the job — and the results are both strikingly familiar and somewhat more favourable to women.

Yet despite these votes of confidence in their qualities, women increasingly doubt voters are ready to elect them.

Fifty-seven per cent of women in the survey said that unreadiness is a major reason women are underrepresented in leadership roles, compared with 41 per cent in 2014.

To be sure, many respondents to the survey (43 per cent) said men and women have basically similar leadership styles.

And among the 57 per cent who said men and women have basically different styles, most said neither is better: 62 per cent expressed no preference for either style.

But do a deep dive into the leadership attributes queried in the Pew survey, and women fared slightly better on almost all of them.

Of the nine leadership qualities listed for political leaders, men fared better than women on only one (being willing to take risks); men and women were equally favoured on working well under pressure.

And of the 12 traits listed for business leaders, women fared better on all but three (risk-taking, being persuasive and making profitable deals).

(The Pew survey is not clear in its write-up on how the list of traits was selected.)

Thirty-one per cent said women were better at being honest and ethical — a leadership trait 91 per cent said was essential for political leadership jobs — while 4 per cent said men were better.

Forty-two per cent said women were better at working out compromises, compared with 8 per cent who favoured men, for a quality 78 per cent said was essential in politics.

(The remainder said they saw no difference.)

Meanwhile, 89 per cent said creating a safe and respectful workplace was an essential quality for an organisation’s leaders, and respondents favoured women by far — with 43 per cent saying women were better at this trait and 5 per cent saying men were.

Some differences were even bigger but were seen as less essential.

Fifty-nine per cent said women were better at being compassionate and empathetic, compared with 4 per cent favouring men, but only 58 per cent said it was a critical trait.

Other differences were smaller: 84 per cent said providing good pay and benefits was an essential quality; 28 per cent said women were better at this trait, while 5 per cent favoured men.

The results aren’t altogether surprising for those familiar with studies of men’s and women’s leadership styles.

It’s a complex, controversial area, filled with conventional wisdom and stereotypes and made more complicated by the expectations people have of how men and women “should” act as leaders.

But there is some academic evidence that women tend to be more democratic, participative leaders — compared with the tendency of men to adopt a more “command-and-control” style.

And other research has shown that female managers tend to motivate people more with positive incentives and more often practise what’s known by researchers as “transformational leadership” (acting as inspirational role models, fostering positive relationships, developing team members’ skills and motivating people to go above and beyond).

The Pew survey is only a poll of public opinion, of course, not evidence of how men and women actually do act in different leadership situations.

But despite the disconnect it shows between people slightly favouring women’s traits in leadership — while holding lingering doubts that people are ready to vote for them — it’s also encouraging to see majorities cite no difference between the two.

On nearly every leadership trait in the Pew survey (being compassionate and empathetic is a key holdout), most people see no difference between male and female leaders.

A majority of respondents see no difference in men’s and women’s leadership styles.

And again, while some see advantages on one side or the other, most see no difference in who is better at different policy issues, such as immigration or gun control.

Electing more women may occur when more people are willing to embrace the differences they see in men’s and women’s leadership qualities, but it could also come when people manage to not see them at all.

* Jena McGregor is a contributing writer on leadership for The Washington Post. She tweets at @jenamcgregor.

This article first appeared at www.washingtonpost.com.

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