When women opt to stay silent, it makes the women who choose not to appear that much more anomalous, given society's persistent fear of female leaders.
In a radio interview this week, rapper T.I. added his two cents to the political commentary surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, opining that the world isn’t ready for a female to occupy the Oval Office, and that the Loch Ness Monster might have a better chance at being elected than a woman. Though he has since issued the obligatory apology and admission of wrongdoing, his comments are consistent with his track record of arguably sexist — if not misogynistic — lyrics, so they should come as no surprise.
But a recent Pew Research Center study suggests that what T.I. said, many Americans are thinking. About four in 10 Americans believe there aren’t more women in top executive positions or political posts because corporate America and the electorate aren’t ready for women leaders. Despite having more female Fortune 500 CEOs, heads of state, and legislators in the United States, six decades of Gallup poll data tell a similar story: People would still rather be led by a man than by a woman. Perhaps shockingly, women especially express this preference for male leaders. Why is the prospect of being led by a woman such an undesirable — if not downright scary — proposition for so many men and women alike?
One reason is because many people have never experienced effective female leadership, and we tend to unconsciously judge or fear that with which we are not familiar. While there are 21 female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies today, this amounts to not even 5% of companies listed on the Fortune 500. And while the United Nations reports that there are currently 18 female world leaders, these women only account for about 10% of United Nations member states. This means that most of the nations in the world have never had a female head of state/head of government and that most companies have never had a female chief executive. And when women’s success is viewed as the exception rather than the rule, there’s always the fear that the next woman to come along will be everything we knew she’d be — not leadership material. And when she shows that she’s leadership material, she is severely penalized for it.
This leads to another key challenge: Many women opt not to demonstrate the agentic behavior that people equate with leadership for fear of the significant backlash that might — and often does — result. Many women still lean back on their heels, opting for self-effacement where self-promotion is warranted because traditional gender roles reserve assertive behavior for men and more communal behavior for women.
This is the exact feeling that Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence intimated in her recent essay in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny, speaking out after the Sony hack when she recognized she was the victim of gender-based pay inequality in Hollywood. Lawrence lamented that she had “failed as a negotiator because [she] gave up early…[and decided] to close the deal without a real fight…[because she] didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’” To normalize female leadership, it will require significant courage on behalf of women — and men — everywhere to support the self-advocacy of women. When women opt to stay silent, it makes the women who choose not to appear that much more anomalous.
For decades, researchers have found that when people think leader, they just don’t think female. Based on traditional gender roles, people associate women with taking care and men with taking charge, which leads to the general association of effective leadership with characteristics and traits that are more masculine than feminine. This places would-be women leaders in a “double-bind,” needing to demonstrate enough warmth to be viewed as legitimately female and avoid the backlash, but also demonstrate enough agency to be viewed as a legitimate leader.
But in my own research with professors Katherine Phillips and Susan Perkins, we discovered that there are some incredibly high-stakes situations in which people ought to think “female” when they think “leader.” In our study encompassing 139 countries over 55 years, we found that in nations riddled by the highest levels of GDP-depressing ethnic conflict, inequality, and social exclusion, female national leaders get better economic performance outcomes than their male counterparts. In the words of IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, “When it’s messy, get the women.”
And just as we have already laid to rest the idea that an African American man couldn’t be the leader of the free world, perhaps we’ll soon be able to retire the idea that a woman couldn’t be too. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Nicholas Pearce is a clinical professor of management & organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He was a speaker at Kellogg’s Chief Diversity Officer Summit.