Business Psychology

Article No. 361
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Leadership and Gender

New findings offer a disturbing conclusion.

There's a lot of interest in leadership. It's easy to see why. Every business owner is a leader. Every parent is a leader. Every employed person answers to a leader, and many people are leaders in some settings and followers in others. Leadership impacts the lives of nearly everyone everyday, and few people are indifferent about it.

In keeping with this interest, a vast literature on leadership exists with new titles appearing faster than anyone can read. Research into leadership also probes the topic exhaustively and taxes the abilities of anyone to navigate. In such a field, researchers make a contribution by staking out a subtopic, placing boundaries around it, and looking for conclusions that emerge across many studies. Samantha C. Paustian-Underdahl from Florida International University is the most recent researcher to make such a contribution. She studies perceptions of leader effectiveness and gender.

"Perceptions of leader effectiveness" requires some explanation.

A nice, clear, objective measure of leadership effectiveness would be splendid. Alas, it doesn't exist. We can identify our fastest runners. A stopwatch is our measure. We can identify our highest jumpers. A stick resting on uprights lets us know. But in real-world settings, we rely upon perceptions of leadership effectiveness. That is, we rely on judgments and opinions of followers, peers, observers, and leaders themselves to tell us who is effective. Perceptions are easy to gather. You just ask people, but perceptions are always influenced by bias and stereotypes. They are approximations of leadership effectiveness. It is the best we have. Paustian-Underdahl is interested in how gender influences these perceptions, and it's an important topic. Selection and retention decisions in real-world settings are based on them.

Paustian-Underdahl examined 95 studies conducted between 1962 and 2011. The numbers of leaders in each study averaged 1,011. This is what she found:

In settings dominated by men, male leaders were were perceived to be more effective. In settings dominated by women, female leaders were perceived to be more effective. In business and educational settings, women were perceived to be more effective. Government settings, like the military, were mostly dominated by men. Social service and educational settings were mostly dominated by women.

Women were perceived to be more effective leaders in middle management positions. There was no difference in perceptions of leadership effectiveness in supervisory level or senior level leadership positions.

Groups of raters who were mostly female perceived women as superior leaders. Groups of raters who were mostly male perceived neither men nor women as superior. Paustian-Underdahl found that in general, men did not perceive a male advantage.

Finally, Paustian-Underdahl found that when male leaders rated themselves, they gave themselves higher effectiveness ratings than women did when they rated themselves. The difference was large and significant. However, this inflated self-estimate by males began to weaken after 1996. When the ratings excluded self-ratings and consisted of peers, subordinates, superiors, judges, and trained observers, women were rated as significantly more effective leaders than men.

Women today are vastly underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership in both business and government. Paustian-Underdahl's findings suggest that they themselves are responsible. Women consistently rated their own leadership performance as significantly lower than men did when they rated their own performance. Why that is true is a question all women need to ponder. The need is great. It is hard to underestimate the negative impact on the career of a woman who considers career-related decisions with a deflated self estimate of her own effectiveness: education and training missed, growth experiences bypassed, opportunities not sought, and dreams not realized. This is a significant disadvantage, especially when males harbor no such self-imposed handicap.

Reference: Paustian-Underdahl, Samantha C., Lisa Slattery Walker, and David J. Woehr (2014) Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness: A Meta-Analysis of Contextual Moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(6), 1129-1145.

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Keywords: gender, leadership, leader effectiveness, gender roles
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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