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Could examining the stereotypical ideas we all hold about leadership qualities, particularly decisiveness and appetite for risk, help correct the gender imbalance at the top of organisations?
One US academic suggests it arises partly because of the way we perceive women as decision makers.
In her book How Women Decide, Therese Huston, a cognitive psychologist, examines the evidence about whether men and women make decisions differently and — crucially — how they are perceived by employees, colleagues and the world in general.
“Society has been underestimating women’s abilities to make astute choices for years,” she writes, “and this doubting, this routine questioning of a woman’s judgment, drives many of the gender differences we see.”
In research published in 2015 by US think-tank Pew Research Centre, participants were asked to assess whether leadership characteristics were more applicable to men or women. More than twice as many respondents saw decisiveness as a masculine rather than feminine trait. Both sexes were awarded equal capacity for intelligence and innovation, while three quarters in the poll saw women as more compassionate. However, unfortunately for women, decisiveness was ranked joint second with intelligence as the most important quality for leadership, while honesty was the number one essential.
Based on these and similar findings, Ms Huston argues that women are combating a set of strongly and widely held assumptions when they take a difficult decision or seek out a decision-making role. This can lead both to unwarranted negative assessment by others and an unhelpful degree of self-consciousness on the part of the women themselves. Doubt and self-doubt creep in: “We are quick to accept a man’s decisions, even the hard, unpleasant ones, as being what must be done,” writes Ms Huston, a researcher at Seattle University. “When a woman announces the same difficult decision, we scrutinise it with twice the vigour. We may not mean to, but we doubt the quality of her choices.”
Ms Huston firmly dismisses what she calls “pink-brain/blue-brain” theories — which claim there are fixed essential differences between men’s and women’s characters and abilities — as an explanation. Research shows, she says, that the only two categories of female who find it more difficult to make decisions than male counterparts are teenage girls and those with obsessive compulsive disorder. But she insists that the experience of decision making — because it includes awareness of the perceptions of others — differs for men and women. She says society and recruiters need to be aware of preconceptions that affect both the judgments women make and how they are judged.
Take the quasi-magical power known as “feminine intuition”. Research by management professors at the University of Leeds cited by Ms Huston shows that women are more likely to draw on data, evidence and research before making a choice. But even the women themselves will describe that choice as driven by instinct rather than analysis.
Other gender assumptions include condemning anything other than instantaneous decisions as peculiarly female dithering, and inclusiveness as “being too nice”. According to Ms Huston, the research data show that people should “stop misinterpreting a desire to collaborate as an inability to decide”.
Such arguments are contentious: men are also subject to negative judgments that are hedged with stereotypical assumptions. But even women at the very top make similar complaints.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Theresa May, UK prime minister since July and one of the most conspicuous female leaders today, said of objections that she is hesitant: “I’m still the same prime minister I’ve always been from the moment I came into office.” She went on to argue that people have simultaneously accused her of being a control freak and indecisive.
As Ms Huston observes, organisations may be robbing themselves of potential leaders by failing to recognise women’s choices as valid: “If we can start recognising that ‘her’ judgment is just as good as ‘his’, women leaders won’t feel like such risky bets in top positions.”