Are People Becoming More Open to Female Leaders?

Women bosses are seen as just as capable as their male counterparts, a new meta-analysis shows, but they rate themselves as less effective than men.

The thing to blame if you think people don't like it when women are in charge is "role congruity." It’s the theory that the most primitive parts of our brain continue to dictate our ideas about gender roles, with the man setting the rules of cave-house and forging the path to the mammoth den while the woman sticks to just nurturing things. Thus, when a woman steps into a leadership role, it’s supposed to trigger a “gender-role violation” that, consciously or not, stirs us to see her as less capable.

This phenomenon has been supported by research. One study, in 1990, found that female leaders were given more negative and less positive feedback than male leaders, even though they offered the same suggestions and arguments.

In 2003, a group of business-school students were divided into two groups: Half were told that a fictional entrepreneur’s name was Heidi; the other half that it was Howard. Though the students said that Heidi and Howard were both competent and worthy of respect, “Heidi was seen as selfish and not the type of person you would want to hire or work for."

But that was two decades ago. Since then, women have made some, but not a lot, of strides as they scuttle across the Minefield of Success and Likability.

As my former colleague Eleanor Barkhorn pointed out, in 2011, a study of 60,000 people published in Human Relations found that “people who actually had female managers did not give them lower ratings than people who had male managers.”

The rub? “Of the 46 percent of respondents who expressed a preference for their boss's gender, 72 percent said they wanted a male manager.”

In other words, people viewed the female bosses like Chipotle customers view a mildly botched burrito orderfine in the end, just not exactly what they wanted. Not exactly the story of the triumph of feminism.

To help sort through some of these conflicting findings, researchers from Florida International University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently conducted a meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, of 99 studies that examined perceptions of female leaders.

They found that while male leaders were more likely to rate themselves as more effective than the female leaders were, other people were actually more likely to rate the female leaders as more effective.

When the researchers combined the effect sizes for the self-ratings and the ratings of others, the gender difference in effectiveness evened out to approximately zero.

This backs the recent Atlantic magazine article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, which documented how women consistently underestimate their skills and potential, while men tend to overstate them. Meanwhile, men are still paid more for doing the same work and are much better represented in c-suites and in Congress.

"These findings are surprising given that men on average continue to be paid more and advance into higher managerial levels than women," one of the current study authors, Samantha C. Paustian-Underdahl, said in a statement. "Future research needs to examine why women are seen as equally (or more) effective leaders than men, yet are not being rewarded in the same ways."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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