The recent death of former First Lady Betty Ford stimulated discussion of how women have advanced over the last 35 years. However, a new study suggests women are still limited in opportunities and that discrimination continues to hinder women from holding leadership roles.
Northwestern University researchers performed a meta-analysis (an integration of a large number of studies addressing the same question) that shows leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine.
According to the researchers, this suggests women suffer from two primary forms of prejudice. Women are viewed as less qualified or natural in most leadership roles, the research shows, and secondly, when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous.
As a consequence, women leaders acquire a gender stereotype based on the role they assume when competing with men for leadership roles.
Previous research found that predominantly “communal” qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are associated with women, and predominantly “agentic” qualities, such as being assertive or competitive, are associated with men.
Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them.
The good news for women is that the project’s analyses indicate that this masculine construal of leadership is weaker now than in the past. Despite this shift toward more androgynous beliefs about leadership, it remains culturally masculine — just not as extremely so as in the past, say the researchers.
However, this masculinity lessens somewhat for lower-level leadership positions and in educational organizations.
The implications of the meta-analysis are straightforward, said Dr. Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern and a co-author of the study.
“Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority,” she said.
The meta-analysis reviewed studies from three different paradigms. The paradigms are characterized as think manager-think male; agency-communion; and masculinity-femininity.
An advantage of the Northwestern project is its use of these paradigms, which provide independent tests of leader stereotypes, Eagly said.
Most of the data came from the United States, with some from Canada, Europe and East Asia. Few studies of leader stereotypes were available from other nations.
“Women’s experiences will differ depending on their culture,” she said. “We would like to have more data from different nations, and also subcultural data within the United States that takes race and social class into account, but that’s something to look to in the future.”
Source: Northwestern University