Women leaders

February 10, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

When Women Rule

While no woman has been president of the United States — yet — the
world does have several thousand years’ worth of experience with
female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record
puts men’s to shame.

A notable share of the great leaders in history have been women: Queen
Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China,
Isabella of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great
of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria. Granted, I’m neglecting the
likes of Bloody Mary, but it’s still true that those women who climbed
to power in monarchies had an astonishingly high success rate.

Research by political psychologists points to possible explanations.
Scholars find that women, compared with men, tend to excel in
consensus-building and certain other skills useful in leadership. If
so, why have female political leaders been so much less impressive in
the democratic era? Margaret Thatcher was a transformative figure, but
women have been mediocre prime ministers or presidents in countries
like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and
Indonesia. Often, they haven’t even addressed the urgent needs of
women in those countries.

I have a pet theory about what’s going on.

In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow
elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But
in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to
navigate public prejudices — and these make democratic politics far
more challenging for a woman than for a man.

In one common experiment, the “Goldberg paradigm,” people are asked to
evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others
are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman.
Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are
rated higher coming from a man.

In particular, one lesson from this research is that promoting their
own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments
have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments,
that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting
females than men are.

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or
business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but
if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy

The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a
tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be
perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.

“It’s an uphill struggle, to be judged both a good woman and a good
leader,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School
professor who is an expert on women in leadership. Professor Kanter
added that a pioneer in a man’s world, like Hillary Rodham Clinton,
also faces scrutiny on many more dimensions than a man — witness the
public debate about Mrs. Clinton’s allegedly “thick ankles,” or the
headlines last year about cleavage.

Clothing and appearance generally matter more for women than for men,
research shows. Surprisingly, several studies have found that it’s
actually a disadvantage for a woman to be physically attractive when
applying for a managerial job. Beautiful applicants received lower
ratings, apparently because they were subconsciously pegged as
stereotypically female and therefore unsuited for a job as a boss.

Female leaders face these impossible judgments all over the world. An
M.I.T. economist, Esther Duflo, looked at India, which has required
female leaders in one-third of village councils since the mid-1990s.
Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards,
the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women
constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes.

Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a
worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to
result from simple prejudice. Professor Duflo asked villagers to
listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in
some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much
lower marks when it was given by a woman.

Such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female
leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations,
the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same
as men. “Exposure reduces prejudice,” Professor Duflo suggested.

Women have often quipped that they have to be twice as good as men to
get anywhere — but that, fortunately, is not difficult. In fact, it
appears that it may be difficult after all. Modern democracies may
empower deep prejudices and thus constrain female leaders in ways that
ancient monarchies did not.