Do Women Prefer Male Leadership?


Women make up less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and about 19% of Congress members. How do women feel about this? Is it a problem that needs to be solved?

So, I took a social dance class in college. It was a semester sampling of various types of dances (waltz, two-step, swing dancing, you name it), and it was a lot of fun. One of the first lessons learned? The male partner leads. And I quickly realized that this made things a lot easier. We couldn’t both lead without getting some sore toes. The steps were tricky enough. I was happy to follow. I don’t think a Broadway career was in my future, but I passed the class just fine.

The modern feminist movement hasn’t made its way to the dance floor quite yet, but in other areas of life, male leadership is more controversial and often seen as a problem to be solved.

A recent Harvard Gazette article discussed the fact that more men than women hold leadership positions in business and in politics. The article notes that, while more women than men are graduating from college and graduate schools, there are far fewer female corporate executives and politicians.

They point to women’s role as primary caretaker as the reason they only make it so far up the corporate ladder. They perceive this as a societal structure that is unequal, discriminatory, and needs to be changed.

Part of their proposed solution is to eliminate gender bias as early as possible in life. They point to a study of teenagers and their leadership preferences to prove their point. The study found that 23% of teenage girls prefer male political leaders (8% of girls preferred female political leaders and 69% reported no preference). There was no significant difference in their preference for male or female business leaders.

This is similar to Gallup polls that, for decades, have found that more women prefer male bosses than female bosses. In a 2014 study, for example, 39% of women preferred to have a male boss, while only 25% preferred a female boss.  

Is this really something to be “fixed” or does it simply, on some level, reflect innate gender differences?

Let me be clear: I’m not saying women can’t or shouldn’t have leadership positions in the workplace or in politics. (Please reread the previous sentence.) Clearly, there are many amazing, capable, intelligent women who do their jobs very well and are integral to many areas of public life. I’m simply stating that perhaps these statistics point us to natural gender differences rather than systemic gender discrimination.

Historically, men have held more leadership roles, so perhaps that influences women’s perception. That’s probably true to some degree. Yet I think the proposed solution to this “problem” is interesting.

As a way to eliminate gender bias toward leadership positions, the study encouraged several proactive steps that families or other adults can take early in a child’s life to stop cultural assumptions regarding gender. They ask families to model non-traditional gender roles instead of reinforcing traditional traits. For example, boys should be assigned caretaking tasks with equal frequency. They also say that sticking with gender-neutral clothes, games, and toys will help prevent cultural assumptions. The study also reminds adults not to shame young persons who may hold traditional beliefs; rather they should challenge them.

To simplify, the overall point of this Harvard article and study is that traditional gender roles lead to fewer women as corporate executives and public leaders. In order to remedy this perceived problem, gender neutrality should start in the home when children are young. In other words, stifle signs of femininity as soon as possible.   

I think it’s so disheartening that the cultural trend is to perceive gender differences as discriminatory. I think it devalues something very special about femininity and masculinity.   There are real differences between men and women, and these studies and statistics simply reflect a bit of that. This is not popular or acceptable to say today, but what really is the end result of complete gender neutrality?

Today’s politically correct tango leaves us tripping over our own two feet. However, when we recognize and embrace gender differences, we can dance so freely and beautifully that even Fred Astaire wouldn’t stand a chance.

Question: Men hold more executive/political leadership roles – do you think this is a result of gender discrimination or a result of gender differences?

2 Comments

Katherine Cheng
Reply March 23, 2016

Stephanie, thank you for your thoughts. I always look forward to your posts because they always get me thinking about what l really believe and WHY. Having spent the last eight years in the military, l have had a fair share of (mostly) male and female leaders; some great, others not. One thing l notice from my personal experiences and observations is that more male leaders than female leaders had a "commanding presence" about them, meaning they were respected greatly, in part, by the way they carried themselves and addressed this subordinates. Not that l didn't see it with my female superiors, it was just more obvious to me in the male gender. l do not say this to support any one argument, just sharing a personal observation. I have also never felt discriminated against because l am female. In my personal experience, I have observed that the military does a great job of supporting women who desire to be leaders. One interesting thing to note, though, is the the female dress white uniforms will be a thing of the past here soon. We are being required to purchase and wear a new uniform that is almost identical to the male version of the same uniform (l encourage you to look this up if you have a moment). In an effort to make the uniform more "uniform", it has actually just been made more male! And for the first time in my career, l do feel discriminated against because it is only the females who have to purchase this new uniform!

    Stephanie
    Reply March 31, 2016

    Thanks so much for this comment! I'm so glad that you find my posts thought-provoking - I don't anticipate everyone agreeing with me, but I think it's immensely important to really think about these topics and converse about them! Your perspective from the military is a really interesting one. I'll definitely research the uniform changes - I've also heard about gender neutral terms and titles being implemented. Thanks again and thank you for your service!

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