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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 4


Is Leadership the Most Important Gender Issue of All? With Alice Eagly, PhD

Bradley Cannon,
Psi Chi Central Office

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

With regard to women in leadership roles, esteemed social psychologist Dr. Alice Eagly is impressed by the progress made during her lifetime. She says, “I remember when it seemed to be a miracle that there was one women in the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith. She was very famous—as the only woman senator!”

Most students these days can probably hardly fathom a world with only a single female senator. But indeed, when Dr. Eagly began her graduate studies at the University of Michigan in 1961, there were far fewer women leaders across the board, including far fewer women professors in the psychology positions that she sought. However, rest assured, that did not stop her from setting an example for others by obtaining her PhD and going on to make numerous contributions in the areas of gender and leadership, prosocial behavior, partner preferences, and attitudes. Well-established at Northwestern University, she is the author of Sex Differences in Social Behavior and the first author of The Psychology of Attitudes and of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, as well as numerous journal articles and chapters.

Snow lightly falls outside her home study window in Illinois as she takes a few minutes to share her interests in gender research with Psi Chi. It is likely that you too have asked yourself many of the very same questions as the ones that she researches. As she explains, “I think everybody is interested in gender in their daily lives. We are all born, usually of one sex or the other, and then we have to figure out what it means in the world and why women and men do or do not behave and think differently. It’s one of life’s great puzzles. I think it’s helpful when psychologists can provide research in this area to answer such questions from a scientific perspective.”

As for researching gender and leadership, she says that her motivations are somewhat more political because leadership is one crucial area where women are underrepresented. “In terms of gender, I think that leadership is the most significant topic because leaders control more resources than other people do in society. When you find few representatives of a group in leadership contexts, that group usually ends up not doing as well in society because leaders don’t take their interests equally into account. No one is there at the table, or few people, to speak up for that group. Women are in that situation, as are many ethnic minorities in the United States. Understanding these leadership issues from a scientific perspective is extremely important because, if change is to happen, it’s helpful to understand the contours of the problem. In this way, I think that leadership is the most important gender issue of all.”

Two Types of Leadership

According to Dr. Eagly, there are two types of leadership roles that professors are often interested in. The first is being an intellectual leader in your field, whereby you’ve done work that interests people in your field. The other is organizational leadership where a psychology professor might become, for example, president of a psychological organization such as the American Psychological Association, or a department chair or dean in a university.

Regarding gender and intellectual leadership, she says, “I wrote a paper with David Miller on eminence as a psychologist. And one thing we saw is tremendous progress for women. If you look at lists from the middle 20th century of the hundred or two hundred most eminent psychologists, there were few women were on the lists. But, if you look at current versions of such lists, there are many women. Women are still underrepresented, but there is considerable progress, and so we have to look at most kinds of social change, including this one, as a gradual process.”

As for progress in universities, Dr. Eagly says, “Psychology graduate programs did have women students when I was a graduate student although we were in the minority. As for the professors at the time, there were very few women who were full professors at research universities. Of course, it’s not like that now, where almost half of tenured psychology professors at universities are women.” In organizational leadership, women are also well-represented as psychology department chairs and deans, and now about 30% of college and university presidents are women in the United States.

Women Leaders Are on the Rise

There are many reasons why progress is slower than Dr. Eagly would like. For example, she says, “There are some barriers and biases that women have to overcome. And then there are the issues of pursuing any intensive career, which requires people to put in fantastic amounts of work over the years and tends to limit other aspects of their lives.” This career pattern can be especially challenging if you have children, Dr. Eagly imparts, because children quite rightly take up a big chunk of a parent’s time. Unfortunately for women with ambitious career goals, a lot more parental responsibility has fallen to women than men. “Even now,” she says, “the ratio of wives’ to husbands’ hours of domestic work is about 2:1 in sociological studies.” Thus, men in general are advantaged in being able to spend more time on their careers and less on domestic work.

People may value women’s more collaborative and relational style, but it is also true that they receive more resistance as leaders

However, the progress is at least steady, and Dr. Eagly believes that over time equality may eventually prevail in career success in psychology. “Gradually, women became educated and now women are more educated than men, with more overall college degrees at all levels—bachelor’s masters, and now PhDs. Sure, there is some sex discrimination but when women have the abilities, over time, most get through and achieve their career goals. During my career lifetime, women first had to obtain professor positions and then stay in those academic careers and overcome what challenges that they might have faced—perhaps initially not being thought of as talented or committed or whatever. Their successes can then inspire younger women!”

According to Dr. Eagly, some external factors have also played a big part in enabling more women to enter the workforce. Specifically, technological advancements come to mind first. She says, “As people developed more and more ways to get work done that don’t involve physical prowess, the workplace opened up to more women. Physical strength is irrelevant to most jobs now, and increasingly more jobs require social and cognitive skills. Also critical are other socioeconomic shifts such as a decline in the birthrate and increased control over reproduction.”

“If you read about people in 19th century families,” Dr. Eagly adds, “women were often having five, six, or more kids and so obviously most women’s lives were in the home. But now, birth rates are much lower, and the average woman in the United States has fewer than two children.”

Spot the Leadership Differences (If You Can)

So exactly how different (or similar) are women and men, and specifically their leadership styles?

“That’s a very big question!” Dr. Eagly says. “As you probably know, sex differences consist of overlapping distributions of women and men. For an obvious example of a sex difference, think of height. Men are taller than women, on the average. But this too is an overlapping distribution, even though height is actually a substantial sex difference. Some psychological sex differences are also quite large like the variable in occupational psychology of people versus things. Are you interested more in people or things? Women are generally more interested in people. Men in things. Of course, there is overlap with this variable too, but it is still a substantial difference as compared to the much smaller differences that we observe in leadership styles.”

Like the variances in the puzzle on the next page, leadership style differences are quite subtle. However, they are consistent in the sense that women tend to have a more collaborative and participative leadership style. Specifically, Dr. Eagly explains, “Women are less likely to be autocratic and top-down in managing others. Also, there’s a variable called transformational leadership.” This leadership style involves many qualities such as raising awareness of shared values, helping team members recognize and overcome personal weaknesses, and appealing to team members’ ideals.

Although women are slightly more transformational than men in leadership style, the specific component of this style in which women are most different from men is the relational aspects, says Dr. Eagly. “Your best guess for a woman’s leadership style is that she would be more collaborative and relational than the typical male leader. But again, these are quite small differences, so it’s not a very good guess in the sense that there are also men who also offer that leadership style.”

Interestingly, many gender trends tend to be fairly universal across cultures. As an overview, she says, “The major theme is that women are more communal, kind, and sympathetic, showing empathy and social skills. Men are more agentic, competitive, and assertive.” One cross-cultural exception to this, she notes, is in East Asian cultures, specifically Japan and Korea, where gender stereotypes suggest that men are more communal than in other cultures. In that culture, there evidently are norms about politeness promote men’s communal behavior.

Do Women Make Better Leaders?

“Well, I don’t think I can answer that in general,” Dr. Eagly says. “I’ve already explained the ways that women tend to be different than men in leadership in terms of having a more collaborative and relational style. Also, we don’t know if women use different leadership styles because of some intrinsic skills that they bring to leadership, or whether they learn on the job that if they are tough and talk down to people, then they get quite a bit of resistance because such behavior seems overly masculine. In other words, women may learn in part on the job that being more collaborative and involving others in the decision making works better for them.”

“So is that better? I mean, it sounds better, right?” Dr. Eagly pauses for a quick chuckle. “Many people would say that it’s wonderful to be more democratic and relational as a leader. But it’s not true that this approach is always better. Sometimes, particularly when organizations are doing poorly, they may need somebody to change things and overcome resistance, which may favor a more directive style. The optimal leadership style depends on the situation of the organization and its traditions.”

As an example, Dr. Eagly asks you to consider university settings, which she playfully explains are full of professors who “think they’re important!” After another laugh, she says, “We professors don’t like autocratic leadership in universities. And so, I’ve seen situations in which a man becomes a dean and tries to tell everybody what to do, but he gets profound resistance because the faculty are used to having a say in everything, and so it doesn’t work. In a university setting, a more collaborative leadership style tends to work better, although it takes a good deal of skill to enact it well.”

People may value women’s more collaborative and relational style, but it is also true that they receive more resistance as leaders, which can make it more complicated for women to lead. In some cases, this resistance can take the shape of sheer prejudice. For example, in her best grumpy male voice, Dr. Eagly says, “We don’t want a woman telling us what to do!” Or people can sometimes also expect women to be nice, and resist them when they act assertively to exert their authority in a leader role. Both of these forms of resistance can result in it being more challenging for women to be effective leaders.

To answer the original question, Dr. Eagly ends by saying this: “I wouldn’t say that women are better leaders. Or men. But, when I do see women leaders doing well, I admire them immensely because they have to possess a great deal of skill to succeed. There are many women who are effective leaders, and they are an inspiration to other women.”

Dr. Eagly’s Advice for You

  1. What can women do to ease the transition back to work after taking time off to have a child? For career success, the first rule is not to stop working in the first place. I think that’s what most of us who have successful careers have done. I have two children, but I never dropped out. Studies have shown that many women who dropped out of professional careers never have a full-time job again or do not obtain a job as desirable as the one that they left. Some women who dropped out to raise children do recover a rewarding professional position, but these outcomes can be elusive. Feminist women are consistently arguing for better childcare to help women stay in the workplace and more sharing of responsibilities with their life partners. If there is sharing between the couple, it is usually feasible not to drop out. However, if a woman feels that there is not enough support to stay employed full-time, then she should try to stay in part-time. Women who continue to work at least part time are more successful in general in attaining their career goals than those who quit employment. But I should add that many women just can’t afford to drop their employment because their income is essential to their families or themselves. That is certainly the case for single mothers. If a woman does drop out, then of course challenges depend on how many years she was out of the workplace. Will she need to retrain? In some jobs, it is possible to re-enter without a lot of difficulty, but that is typically not the case in most professions, where required skills and knowledge change a lot over time.
  2. What should a woman do who finds herself in a primarily male academic or workplace environment? Show courage! When I started out in my first job at Michigan State University, there were only two other women in a very large psychology department. And so I was in this minority. When you are in this position, you are more visible. People watch what you do, and so if you make mistakes, they’re magnified. But at that time, I didn’t feel that I was a target of prejudice. I think that my male colleagues wanted me to do well, although the situation wasn’t as favorable as having more female colleagues. Sometimes work colleagues may say things that are unfavorable or hurtful, but just try to move on and do your work. That being said, it’s not good to be blind to gender. If you feel that there is unfairness related to your gender, try for calm and polite correction to let others know that you felt their comment reflected poorly on you or on women in general. Such an approach is often quite good in terms of changing the tone and creating awareness of gender discrimination. Then just go forward and see how the situation develops. Of course, clear-cut and persistent discrimination demands sterner interventions.
  3. If students are interested in pursuing a career in researching gender, what steps should they take? You want to gain a good grounding, not just in the particular topic that you’re interested in, but in your field more generally—that is, in psychology. I think that’s extremely important. If you want to study gender, then you will also need a framework of theory and method in order to be able to do good work. Learning psychology more broadly will help you be well-trained in a variety of theories and methods. Also, as a graduate student, you should partner with one or more professors who are working on your preferred topic. If you’re interested in gender, then you should find a professor who works in that area and does interesting work. You would apply to that psychology program and hope to be admitted as a graduate student.

Alice Eagly, PhD, is professor of psychology and James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. She is a social psychologist known for her work on gender, feminism, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping, and leadership. She has received several awards including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association and the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology, and the Eminent Leadership Scholar Award from the Network of Leadership Scholars of the Academy of Management. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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