Female Leadership Advantage and Disadvantag

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Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31 (2007), 1–12. Blackwell Publishing, Inc. Printed in the USA. Copyright C 2007 Division 35, American Psychological Association. 0361-6843/07


In the United States, women are increasingly praised for having excellent skills for leadership and, in fact, women, more than men, manifest leadership styles associated with effective performance as leaders. Nevertheless, more people prefer male than female bosses, and it is more difficult for women than men to become leaders and to succeed in male-dominated leadership roles. This mix of apparent advantage and disadvantage that women leaders experience reflects the considerable progress toward gender equality that has taken place in both attitudes and behavior, coupled with the lack of complete attainment of this goal.

A good introduction to the complexities of women’s current status as leaders can follow from contemplating journalists’ discussions of this topic. The most striking aspect of some recent statements in newspapers and magazines is that they are favorable to women’s abilities as leaders. Some journalists seem to be saying that women have arrived or are arriving at their rightful position as leaders. Consider the following statement from Business Week: “After years of analyzing what makes leaders most effective and figuring out who’s got the Right Stuff, management gurus now know how to boost the odds of getting a great executive: Hire a female” (Sharpe, 2000, p. 74). Not only did Business Week announce that women have the “Right Stuff,” but also Fast Company maintained that “[t]he future of business depends on women” (Heffernan, 2002, p. 9). Business Week followed with a cover story on the new gender gap, stating, “Men could become losers in a global economy that values mental power over might” (Conlin, 2003, p. 78). Readers of these articles might conclude that contemporary women are well prepared for leadership and have some advantages that men do not possess. Now examine statements of a different sort. Consider, for example, a New York Times editorial clearly stating that being a woman is a decided disadvantage for leadership:

When the crunch comes, the toughest issue for Clinton may be the one that so far has been talked about least. If she runs, she’ll be handicapped by her gender. Anyone who thinks it won’t be difficult for a woman to get elected president of the United States should go home, take a nap, wake up refreshed and think again (Herbert, 2006, p. A29). Concerning corporate leadership, a Wall Street Journal editorial conveyed a lack of confidence in women in the statement that “[m]ale directors are simply afraid to take an unnecessary risk by selecting a woman” (Dobryznyski, 2006, p. A16). In addition, consider editorial writer Maureen Dowd’s New York Times commentary on Katie Couric’s ascension as the first female network evening news anchor: “The sad truth is, women only get to the top of places like the network evening news and Hollywood after those places are devalued” (Dowd, 2006, p. A21). In contemporary culture of the United States, women on the one hand are lauded as having the right combination of skills for leadership, yielding superior leadership styles and outstanding effectiveness. On the other hand, there appears to be widespread recognition that women often come in second to men in competitions to attain leadership positions. Women are still portrayed as suffering disadvantage in access to leadership positions as well as prejudice and resistance when they occupy these roles. How can women enjoy a leadership advantage but still suffer from disadvantage? To answer this question, the first step for social scientists should be to figure out if these female advantage and disadvantage themes have any validity. If both themes are to some extent accurate, a second challenge is to determine how...
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