Why are women leaders bolder than men?

Be bold.
Be bold.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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In 2013, after Congress reached a bipartisan deal to end the crippling government shutdown, Republican senator John McCain acknowledged, “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily from women in the Senate.” At 20 members, women make up just one-fifth of the Senate. But a small group from across the ideological spectrum came together to initiate discussions and drive a compromise, while their male colleagues remained mostly intransigent.

It is one of the more striking and least remembered facts of that dark episode.

And according to a new study published by the Harvard Business Review, it shouldn’t actually be that surprising. Though we tend to think of “boldness” as a masculine trait, it found women are bolder leaders than men, on average.

Researchers examined the behavior of 75,000 leaders from around the world, assessing their boldness in terms of seven key behaviors:

  • Challenges standard approaches
  • Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement
  • Does everything possible to achieve goals
  • Gets others to go beyond what they originally thought possible
  • Energizes others to take on challenging goals
  • Quickly recognizes situations where change is needed
  • Has the courage to make needed changes

Because of the imbalanced gender ratio among senior executives, the data set had nearly twice as many men as women—but women still out-ranked men in boldness (as defined by the study).

There is some risk of gender essentialism in this kind of assertion. Is it really possible that women, by virtue of some mysterious quality of their feminine nature, are intrinsically better leaders? Less ego-driven and antagonistic, more collaborative and compromising? The story of the 2013 shutdown makes it tempting to think so. But there might be another answer.

Researchers found that bold behavior increased for women in male-dominated sectors, and it was especially strong among younger women. This suggests that there’s a self-selecting factor: Women in general probably aren’t bolder than men, but the women who succeed in male-dominated fields are.

The finding correlates with another study that has tried to explain why women outperform men in Congress. Congresswomen sponsor more bills and obtain more co-sponsorships for their legislation than their male colleagues do. And after blizzard Jonas hit the east coast last January, the only senators who showed up to work were women. “Look around the chamber,” Republican senator Lisa Murkowski said. “The presiding officer is female. All of our parliamentarians are female. Our floor managers are female. All of our pages are female.”

Sarah Anzia at Stanford University and Christopher Berry at the University of Chicago call it “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect.” Jackie Robinson was one of the greatest baseball players of his day because only the highest-level talent could break through the racial bias and barriers he faced.

The same goes for women in politics: Only the most qualified, ambitious, and hardest-working female candidates manage to get elected. It’s no surprise, then, that they outperform men when they get there.