Women Make Better Leaders Than Men, If You Give Them The Chance

As the bumbling debt talks last month sunk Congress' approval ratings to a record low, pundits across the land began to ponder: Would our politics be less soul-crushing if women were running the show? Or if they at least had a bigger seat at the table?

The research says yes.

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When Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland studied the top 1,500 U.S. companies over 15 years, they found that the firms with women at the top performed significantly better. On an even more macro scale, the more power that female citizens have, the better the lives of everyone in that country. According to the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which ranks women's economic and political power in 162 countries, gender equality correlates almost perfectly with a country's wealth.

As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write, organizations from the World Bank to the Joint Chiefs of Staff have discovered that "focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism."


Exercise Of Power

Women have been excluded from the halls of power for centuries. So it makes sense that doubling the pool of potential leaders, and the competition for leadership positions, will up the quality of the people at the top.

But it's something more, says Psychology Today. According to psychologists Robert and Joyce Hogan, half of executives fail, and up to three quarters of U.S. managers are incompetent. The one thing that most of them have in common is a Y chromosome.

Women, in general, exercise power differently from men. Dr. Alice Eagly, a scholar of sex differences in leadership, told Big Think that "women tend to be somewhat more collaborative, participative, democratic, and men a bit more top-down, autocratic, directive."

Always cautious, however, to reduce learned traits to genetic essence, Eagly adds that women may act this way because when women are top-down, autocratic or directive everyone is way more annoyed.

This is part of the "likability" problem that double binds so many women. For men, the more successful you are, the more people want to be your friend. For women, the opposite is true. More cooperative female management practices could just be an adaptation to a world that punishes women for single-minded ambition.

As Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, said wistfully at the end of a TED talk last year: "I want my daughter not only to succeed but to be liked for her accomplishments."

But neuroscience suggests an even deeper difference. In studies, women have been shown to exhibit higher levels of social intelligence, verbal skills, focus and accuracy when multi-tasking. These propensities just happen to be the in-demand skills of the 21st century economy.

Hanna Rosin made this point in her apocalyptically headlined Atlantic cover story last year, "The End of Men."

At the time, three quarters of the 8 million Americans let go in the recession were men, since construction, manufacturing and high finance were the most battered industries.

While stamina and muscle may have been primary qualifications in economies past, Rosin writes: "The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men's size and strength."


A Majority Of The Workforce

This is partly why women have been making such impressive gains in the workforce. Last year, women became the majority of workers for the first time in American history. And of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.

Even more dramatic is the female conquest of higher education. Last year, 50 percent more women than men graduated from college, and women now earn 60 percent of master's degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all MBAs.

Not only are women beating men in college enrollment, they're having a better time doing it. Fifty percent of female graduates surveyed by the Pew Research Center considered the price of their diplomas as money well spent, while only 37 percent of men agreed.

Women may prove right on this one. The post-industrial economy is also a big fan of degrees.

It also likes inspiration. And women, researchers have found, edge out men when it comes to what's called "transformational" leadership, a management style that focuses on nurturing, encouraging and developing the individual, as opposed to issuing commandments to the rank-and-file.

Despite these advantages, women are still shut out from the top level of every profession everywhere in the world. Only 20 of the world's heads of state and 19.3 percent of all members of parliament are women.


Making Room At The Top

Although half of management in U.S. corporations are female, senior management is almost as gentleman's clubby as a "Mad Men" episode. Only 15.7 percent of board members of Fortune 500 companies are female, and only 12 are helmed by a woman, down from 15 last year. A measly 2.4 percent.

A number like that needs some serious explaining, and there's no shortage of theories. Most simply, people don't think women make good leaders. In 2007, 12 percent of Americans said they wouldn't vote a woman for president.

Having been wives and homemakers for much of human history, women are still burdened with this image of themselves from the past as passive, dependent, sensitive and emotional.

Interestingly, the recession has flipped somewhat this latter point, by exposing the cataclysmic consequences of testosterone-fueled risk-taking. "The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map," writes Rosin, "men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of cool and levelheaded."

In 2009, Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the first openly gay head of state the world has ever seen, in the wake of one of the worst man-made disasters the country had ever witnessed. Emphasis on the man.

"We are going to base our economic policies on prudence and responsibility," she said. "But we also stress social values, women's rights, equality and justice,"

Other heads of state placed blame squarely on the male shoulders that ballooned the economy to the bursting point. Irish President Mary McAleese claimed that the country's troubles were "testosterone driven," and 55 percent of Irish Times' readers agreed.

It's perhaps no accident that since the recession began, the number of female heads of state has increased by 250 percent.

But in the corporate world the number of females on top has held steady since 2002, according to Sandberg, and is in fact tipping downward. One cause, she said, is that women's advancement in the workplace has sped ahead of their advancement at home.


The Grip Of The Pay Gap

On a given day, women in OECD countries spend an average of 2½ more hours than men on unpaid household work. That adds up to 23 extra 40-hour workweeks.

With women still making an average of 78 cents to a man's dollar, it's no surprise then that it's the woman who usually shaves off the hours or takes a career hiatus when a child enters the fold.

And why are women making less money? One reason is that women aren't asking for it. As NPR reported, men are four times as likely to request a raise. Economist Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University claims that by failing to negotiate their salary at the beginning, her graduate students may lose between $1 million and $1.5 million over a lifetime. Unfortunately, only 7 percent of women negotiate their first wages, compared to 57 percent of men, according to Sandberg.

And why are women asking for less money? Because they don't think they deserve it. "Women systematically underestimate their own ability," Sandberg said, and are more likely to claim their success is due to external factors, like help or luck. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to think their success is the result of being "awesome."

So women find themselves in another double-bind. The skills that make them better leaders -- collaboration, multitasking, nurturing, with a focus on improving and rewarding others -- turn out to be exactly the same skills that make it so hard for women to become leaders in the first place.



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Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

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