There’s been much debate recently over the perception of women business leaders. Several studies have uncovered a notable biases against women managers: They earn less money than their male counterparts and are less admired by their teams, the research says.
All the same, Harvard Business School research found that women business leaders are actually seen as more effective leaders than men.
Well, which one is it?
A new study featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology compiles and analyzes 99 studies on female managers and finds that, overall, women and men are perceived as equally effective leaders.
"When all leadership contexts are considered, men and women do not differ in perceived leadership effectiveness," lead researcher Samantha Paustian-Underdahl, of Florida International University, said in a news release. "As more women have entered into and succeeded in leadership positions, it is likely that people's stereotypes associating leadership with masculinity have been dissolving slowly over time," she added.
The authors note that women often rate themselves as less effective leaders than men rate themselves, but found from there’s no real difference in employee perception. The study did find biases based on industry, however, according to Olga Khazan in The Atlantic: Men were seen as more capable in male-dominated fields like government while women were seen as more effective leaders in fields like education.
One positive finding from the new research is that the perception of women as leaders has improved over time and that women’s leadership personalities—such as a more nurturing style—flourish as America's workplace transitions away from the traditional blue-collar jobs and toward more white-collar ones. “Now that so many of us are white-collar pixel-pushers working across cultures and time-zones, there’s less of a need for commandeering foremen and more of a need for open, collaborative, ‘feminine’ bosses gently nudging us to greatness,” Khazan writes.
One persistent challenge for women leaders, she notes, is that research still indicates that employees don’t like women as much when they break stereotypes and have personality traits associated with men—for example, when women are brazen or outspoken rather than nice and nurturing.
Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, pointed out this female leadership dilemma in a recent blog post for Harvard Business Review:
What is really going on, as peer reviewed studies continually find, is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave.
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