Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 83
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Something Women Can't Do

New research reveals a striking gender difference but fails to explain what it means.

A mystery deepened this year in a study conducted in the Israeli Defense Force. The research was supposed to resolve a discrepancy first noticed in 1993 involving the Pygmalion effect, but it didn't happen.

The Pygmalion effect is a leadership curiosity best illustrated with a school example: If you pick 5 students at random from a class at the beginning of a year and tell their teacher they have unusually high capabilities, when you return at the end of the year you will find these students achieving far beyond their potential. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated this effect and we even know how it works: Teachers' expectations for performance are raised, students sense them, and they respond with greater effort. (The effect is named after King Pygmalion of ancient Cyprus who fell in love with an ivory statue he carved and was granted his wish that the statue come alive.)

Over the years, researchers have explored the limits of this effect and have tested it in work settings, but in 1993 a review of these studies revealed that all successful efforts to stimulate the effect involved men, and all unsuccessful efforts involved women. Intriguing questions . . . are women immune? Is it impossible to stimulate a Pygmalion effect among adult women? A mystery was born, and a team from Tel Aviv University led by Taly Dvir found an opportunity to solve it, a 7-week officer training course in the Israeli Defense Force with 345 young women enrolled.

The young cadets were divided into 23 squads, and each squad was led by a woman. Anticipating unusual results, Dvir, et al., measured all possible factors that could explain unexpected findings, including leadership provided by the squad leaders and attitudes of the cadets.

No Pygmalion effect emerged from their data. Nothing. And none of the factors they measured explained why. Far from solving the mystery, Dvir and his team found themselves with a greater challenge than they had expected.

It was time for another experiment.

For their second experiment, Dvir, et al., found a 7-week physical-training instructor course with 61 cadets enrolled, 26 women, and 35 men. The cadets were divided into 3 squads, a male group led by a man, a female group led by a man, and a female group led by a woman. The researchers repeated the same experiment and measured 2 more attitude factors they thought might resolve the mystery. This time the Pygmalion effect was strong in the all-male group, strong in the all-female group led by a man, and missing from the all-female group led by a woman. It was the leader's gender that made the difference! The female squad leader couldn't stimulate the Pygmalion effect among women subordinates, and none of the factors they measured explained why.

This is a gender difference, something men can do and women can't. Or is it a difference in how women subordinates react to male and female leaders? What if one of the groups had been all male and had a female leader?

The Pygmalion effect is actually leadership trickery. It tricks leaders into doing what we'd like them to do all the time: set high expectations for their people and stimulate outstanding performance. Perhaps women don't need tricking. Perhaps this finding reveals men's inherent inability to lead, that they can be tricked into doing it, while women are natural leaders, stimulating their subordinates to achieve beyond their potential, and they can't be tricked to do something they're already doing. The female group led by a woman did outscore the male group led by a man in this training course. Or maybe women aren't effective leaders. That may explain the rarity of their numbers in executive positions.

A mystery. More research is sure to follow, but whether it resolves it or deepens it we must wait to see.

Reference: Dvir, Taly, Dov Eden, and Michal Lang Banjo (1995). Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Gender: Can Women Be Pygmalion and Galatea? Journal of Applied Psychology, 80 (2), 253-270.

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