Leader Gender Bias

In an experiment on gender perceptions, psychologists Cameron Anderson and Francis Flynn gave one group of MBA students the original Heidi Roizen case for later in-class discussion, while the other half received a copy that was identical in every way, except that "Heidi" became "Howard."  In a study currently under review, Anderson and Flynn report that while both Howard and Heidi were rated as equally competent (they were the same person, after all), students described the female version of the character as overly aggressive, and were much less likely to want to work with or hire her.

That was from Slate.  Here is the New York Times:  


In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures … and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place – in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.  Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed "inspiring others" as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was "delegating" that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators. ….

Study participants were shown videos of a job interview, after which they were asked to rate the applicant and choose their salary. The videos were identical but for two variables – in some the applicants were male and others female, and the applicant expressed either anger or sadness about having lost an account after a colleague arrived late to an important meeting.  The participants were most impressed with the angry man, followed by the sad woman, then the sad man, and finally, at the bottom of the list, the angry woman.

I expect gender biases are only a tip of our iceberg of biases on who are good leaders.  It seems we use leaders less for making good decisions, and more for inspiring, motivating, and comforting.   As they say:

To be a leader, find a parade and get out in front.

Decision markets (such as fire-the-CEO markets) can help overcome biases about which leaders make good decisions.  But they can’t help as much with biases in who people let themselves be inspired or motivated by.  Anyone have a better idea? 

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  • Gray Area

    People have invented a way around this bias by divorcing decision making power from inspirational power (by inventing the photogenic puppet, and the power behind the throne).

  • http://beyondrivalry.blogspirit.com/archive/2007/11/30/leader-gender-bias.html Beyond Rivalry

    Leader Gender Bias

    Reading this synopsis by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias (of more synopses at NYT and Slate), I wonder if the quality of ‘being a woman’ is antithetical in many people’s minds to the quality of ‘being a leader.’ I.e., each culture determines leadership…

  • Phil

    What if “leadership skills” (which perhaps means more aggressive behavior) in females is correlated to other, unpleasant traits, whereas in men it’s not? That might explain part of the “Heidi” effect.

    I’m not saying this correlation actually exists, but, if it did, that would be an alternative explanation.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    I think this is explainable by what we know about stereotyping and categorization in general rather than needing a specific explanation for leaders or gender. Example:

    When stereotypes are activated, people are judged in terms of the group’s standards. For example, an aggressive woman may be judged as more aggressive than an objectively comparable aggressive man because women are stereotyped as being less aggressive than men in general.

    Source: Wilson, R. A., & Keil, F. C. (2001). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, 805.

  • Chris

    …..and I would opt for the more Freudian explanation (although I have very little time for Sigmund in general) that we feel more threatened by assertiveness coming from a female than from a male.

  • Ned

    “I expect gender biases are only a tip of our iceberg of biases on who are good leaders.”

    How can someone be a good leader if people do not want that person to lead them? It seems, based on these surveys, that people simple want (or prefer) their leaders to be male, and that’s all there is to it. As was pointed out in the original post, decision making is not all there is to leadership.

  • briarandbramble

    Robin, why not go with the simpler explanation that on average, men and women differ in leadership ability? Why do you need to postulate biases here?

  • Adirian

    That simpler explanation isn’t simpler, briar – it posits more information than a simple perceptive bias. A simpler explanation, in human context, is that if leadership is seen as a masculine trait, females will try to minimize it, in order to be feminine, and hence, attractive. (And will be unattractive if they don’t, and then perhaps the bias towards attractive people accounts for a significant part of it.) (This explanation is simpler because it posits less additional information, and instead takes advantage of other information already posited. As a verbal explanation it requires more words, but each word means significantly less.)

  • Gray Area

    “Robin, why not go with the simpler explanation that on average, men and women differ in leadership ability? Why do you need to postulate biases here?”

    Presumably because valued leadership qualities differ across cultures, while higher valuations for men over women do not. (Unless you are willing to entertain the notion that men are superior to women on average in every sense considered important for leadership).

  • anonymous

    What if “leadership skills” (which perhaps means more aggressive behavior) in females is correlated to other, unpleasant traits, whereas in men it’s not? That might explain part of the “Heidi” effect.

    …..and I would opt for the more Freudian explanation (although I have very little time for Sigmund in general) that we feel more threatened by assertiveness coming from a female than from a male.

    Males are pretty much expected to “blow off their steam” i.e. channel their aggressiveness into positive activities and interactions. Since females are less aggressive than males on average and people are often socialized in gender-specific ways, there is less opportunity for this socialization effect to become established in females. Hence, an aggressive female will be expected to be more threatening or less productive than an equally aggressive male.

  • JeskaDanyel

    Males are pretty much expected to “blow off their steam” i.e. channel their aggressiveness into positive activities and interactions. Since females are less aggressive than males on average and people are often socialized in gender-specific ways, there is less opportunity for this socialization effect to become established in females. Hence, an aggressive female will be expected to be more threatening or less productive than an equally aggressive male.

    Aggression also turns into, in some cases, physical violence… true, there are some Battered Men’s Shelters but men are more likely to beat up a woman than the reverse. so, I wouldn’t see why you would want an aggressive man over an aggressive woman other than the fact that its a norm that people have gotten used to, men being aggressive. and we really shouldn’t get used to aggressive behavior in anyone because that just leads to not doing anything about a situation that could be potentially harmful.

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