This new study paints an intriguing picture of how we perceive female leaders

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Moya Crockett
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New research highlights the positive ways we view powerful women in business and the workplace.

It would be wonderful to live in a world where the subject of ‘women and leadership’ wasn’t even worthy of discussion, wouldn’t it? A world where women occupied positions of cultural, political and corporate power just as often as men, and where researchers no longer had to spend time investigating how and why women were prevented from having a proportionate influence over society. In a world like that, a person’s gender would be seen as entirely irrelevant to their leadership potential – making the age-old question of ‘do women make effective leaders’ seem as ludicrous as asking whether curly-haired men are inherently good at juggling.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t live in that world. Just 32% of MPs are female, and there are currently twice as many men called David or Steve leading FTSE 100 companies than women. Earlier this year, meanwhile, several big corporations tried to explain away their appalling gender pay gaps by pointing to the lack of women in senior positions – a convenient excuse which felt more like a slap in the face.

Against this backdrop, many sociologists, economists and psychologists have dedicated large swathes of their careers to investigating how people perceive women leaders. Social scientist Virginia Schein began researching this subject back in the early Seventies, when she found that both male and female managers believed that men were more likely to possess leadership skills than women (a phenomenon she dubbed “think manager, think male”).

Since then, countless studies have indicated that women are likely to face negative gender stereotypes and doubts about their competence when climbing the corporate ladder or trying to pursue a political career. 

“There’s nothing wrong with business and political leaders being socially conscious and considerate of others”

But it looks as though attitudes towards women leaders are gradually changing. An encouraging new study shows that women – significantly more so than men – are seen as possessing several positive traits that are crucial to good leadership.

More than 4,500 people were surveyed for the study, which was carried out by the American Pew Research Center. Of these people, 43% said that women in business were better at “creating a safe and respectful workplace”, compared to just 5% who said men were better.

More than a third of people believed that women were better at “valuing people from different backgrounds”, a skill that a paltry 3% of respondents thought men were better at. And some 33% of those surveyed felt women were better at “considering the societal impact of business decisions” and “mentoring young employees”. Just 8% and 9% of respondents, respectively, thought men were better in these areas.

In the political arena, meanwhile, 61% of respondents thought women leaders were more compassionate and empathetic than men – and almost one-third saw women as more ethical. 

Watch: Why it’s time for more #VisibleWomen 

What makes this research intriguing is the fact that many of the qualities attributed to women leaders – respectfulness, compassion, a strong moral compass – could be seen as traditionally soft or ‘feminine’ traits.

This could be viewed as problematic, since prior research has shown that we tend to associate leadership with more stereotypically masculine characteristics such as assertiveness and competitiveness. It’s notable that men ranked higher than women on two scores, according to Pew’s research: “being willing to take risks” in politics and “negotiating profitable deals” in business.

Of course, women leaders who are naturally more aggressive and blunt shouldn’t have to present themselves as sensitive and generous-hearted in order to be liked or respected – particularly since men aren’t expected to behave in the same way.

At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with business and political leaders being socially conscious and considerate of others. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather work for a boss or vote for a politician who seemed thoughtful, ethical and empathetic, whatever their gender. These traits might not be ones we’ve historically associated with good leadership, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. 

“Women leaders who are naturally more aggressive shouldn’t have to present themselves as sensitive in order to be respected”

Perhaps most hearteningly, a significant proportion (43%) of the people surveyed by Pew didn’t think there was a notable difference in how men and women approached leadership roles.

Of those who did think men and women’s leadership styles varied (57%), about 62% felt that neither approach was inherently “better”.

And that’s a very good thing. Because some women may well have a more conventionally ‘feminine’ style of leadership to the conventionally competitive, macho CEO or MP. Likewise, many women will buck gender norms by being combative and cutthroat, and some male leaders will be sensitive and supportive.

It takes all sorts, as my granny would say. And if we ever want to get to a place where the subject of ‘women and leadership’ isn’t up for debate, we need to recognise that.

Images: Getty Images