In this year’s unorthodox presidential election season, the latest campaign foibles can sometimes obscure the unprecedented fact that one major-party candidate for highest office in the United States is a woman. In a country where women have held the right to vote since 1920, it would be a major step to join the approximately 50% of world nations that already have or have had a female head of state. That club includes Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, and South Korea.
Beyond the historical import, though, does it really matter if a woman is the commander in chief? Do women lead differently than men do, by virtue of their gender? Hillary Clinton seems to believe so, as shown by her own words:
I just think women in general are better listeners, are more collegial, more open to new ideas and how to make things work in a way that looks for win-win outcomes.
Is feminine leadership style a real phenomenon? That’s a question social science has attempted to answer by studying typical differences in how men and women lead.
Clinton’s statement can be checked against the many studies that have examined leadership styles. Conducted over many years, the research is based on people’s ratings of individual leaders’ typical behaviors in a wide range of settings—mainly business, educational, and governmental.
Presented with many studies, researchers typically average their findings to determine general trends. Such projects, known as meta-analyses, have found that female leaders, on average, are somewhat more likely to be democratic, collaborative, and participative than their male counterparts—that is, they invite input from others and attempt to build consensus. Men, in contrast, are more likely to be autocratic and directive in their approach. Women are thus more likely to take others’ views into account, and are less likely to impose solutions without consultation.
Women leaders also place more emphasis on developing positive relationships with others, and tend to use more positive incentives than men and fewer threats or negative incentives. Women are also less likely than men to avoid making decisions or exercising authority.
Of course, these are generalizations based on leaders of many different types of groups and organizations, ranging from middle managers in business to department chairs and deans in universities. These broad-stroke characterizations do not hold true for every man and woman who heads a group, or for every situation an individual might find him- or herself in.
Consider, for example, that it is a valid generalization to say that the average height of men is greater than that of women. But obviously there are some women who are taller than most men, and some men who are shorter than most women.
And in fact, the leadership styles of women and men are much more similar than their heights, because these behaviors are influenced by many more factors than gender. Clearly, some women and men have been atypical of their sex. For example, Margaret Thatcher was famous for her highly assertive, autocratic leadership style. Apple CEO Tim Cook is known for the relatively collaborative and team-oriented style that he has encouraged in the company. Yet, on average, it is men who more often proceed in a top-down fashion, and women who work to build positive relations and find consensus.
If there are differences, why?
It’s a lot trickier to figure out the reasons for these differences than it is to simply identify them. But evidence suggests that norms about how men and women should act are relevant. In general, women are expected to be pleasant, caring, and nice. Men are expected to be strong and assertive, as are leaders in general.
In these ways, some expectations for women are at odds with those for leaders. This inconsistency makes leadership challenging for women because they face a double bind: pressure to be warm and pleasant as a woman, yet assertive and even tough as a leader.
When women clearly violate social expectations about what women do and how they behave, they often receive backlash in the form of dislike and sharp disapproval. Some of the vehement and sometimes obscene anti-Hillary signs and chants at Trump rallies could be interpreted as examples.
Yet, the leader role itself exerts similar pressures on women and men. A president, for example, is expected to “act presidential” and proceed with a certain dignity and competence—a norm that applies to men and women alike.
There is another way in which women lead differently from men: They tend to have somewhat different priorities for what they want to accomplish. Here’s how Hillary Clinton suggested her own life would influence her understanding of Americans’ concerns and how to address them:
My life experiences, what I care about, what I’ve been through just make me perhaps more aware of and responsive to a lot of the family issues that people are struggling with whether it’s affording child care or looking to get their incomes up because everything is increasing in cost. I really do feel that my preparation for being president puts me very strongly on the side of helping American families and that’s at the core of my campaign.
Studies of people’s attitudes and values have shown, on average, that women tend to be more compassionate and other-oriented than men, and generally have a more egalitarian ideology. Men, in contrast, tend to be more oriented than women to personal power and achievement. On numerous social policy issues, women favor helping disadvantaged groups more than men do, and these groups include not only women but children, racial minorities, and the poor.
In legislatures, women, especially women of color, are more likely than their white male counterparts to advocate for compassionate policies that promote the interests of women, minorities, children, families, and the poor, and that support the public good in areas such as health care and education.
These trends in legislative behavior are weaker among Republican than Democratic legislators in the US. Most elected women align with the Democratic Party (76 of the 104 women now serving in Congress are Democrats, while 28 are Republican); and recently elected Republicans tend to be very conservative, be they women or men.
Other studies have looked at the gender composition of corporate boards in relation to companies’ efforts to enhance social outcomes—things like good community relations and environmental sustainability. A large meta-analysis of this research found that companies with a greater share of female directors demonstrate more corporate social responsibility and engage in more activities that build a positive social reputation.
Women as corporate directors and company owners are also associated with fewer worker layoffs during economic downturns. Women’s business leadership thus appears to be less single-mindedly concerned with shareholder value and more attentive to a wider range of stakeholders—especially employees and communities. These priorities are consistent with women’s relatively other-oriented and compassionate attitudes and values.
All in all, what do social scientific studies tell us about how the nation—and the world—would be different if women were equitably represented in leadership? It’s difficult to predict given that we are such a long way from women holding 50% of the positions of power—in Congress or in C-suites. Today, women are only 4% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500, though they account for more than a quarter of all chief executive officers in the US.
There’s no guarantee that decision-making would quickly become more effective by incorporating more women into the process. Reaping the benefits of diversity requires learning to work well with people who are different. The most likely outcome as women gradually gain more power is a shift in priorities toward more social equality.