A wide-ranging survey from the Pew Research Center showed in which industries women are best represented in leadership roles; how different parties view women in leadership; and how each gender within those parties views the issue. But another important finding from the survey was this: While women fared slightly better than men on almost all leadership traits, they’re still doubtful that voters are ready to elect them.
According to the survey, 57 percent of women in the survey said that unreadiness is a major reason women are underrepresented in leadership roles, compared with 41 percent in 2014. But do a deep dive into the leadership attributes queried in the Pew survey, and women scored slightly higher on almost all of them. Of the nine leadership qualities listed for political leaders, men fared better than women on only one (being willing to take risks); men and women were equally favored on working well under pressure. And of the 12 traits listed for business leaders, women fared better on all but three (risk-taking, being persuasive and making profitable deals). (The Pew survey is not clear in its write-up on how the list of traits was selected.)
These findings are subtle. Many respondents to the survey (43 percent) said men and women have basically similar leadership styles. And among the 57 percent who said men and women have basically different styles, most said neither is better: 62 percent expressed no preference for either style.
But there were some important distinctions:
• Thirty-one percent said women were better at being honest and ethical — a leadership trait 91 percent said was essential for political leadership jobs — while 4 percent said men were better.
• Forty-two percent said women were better at working out compromises, compared with 8 percent who favored men, for a quality 78 percent said was essential in politics. (The remainder said they saw no difference.)
• 89 percent said creating a safe and respectful workplace was an essential quality for business leaders, and respondents favored women by far — with 43 percent saying women were better at this trait and 5 percent saying men were.
• Some differences were even bigger but were seen as less essential. Fifty-nine percent said women were better at being compassionate and empathetic, compared with 4 percent favoring men, but only 58 percent said it was a critical trait.
• Other differences were smaller: 84 percent said providing good pay and benefits was an essential quality; 28 percent said women were better at this trait, while 5 percent favored men.
The results aren’t altogether surprising for those familiar with studies about men’s and women’s leadership styles. It’s a complex, controversial area, filled with conventional wisdom and stereotypes and made more complicated by the expectations people have of how men and women “should” act as leaders. But there is some academic evidence that women tend to be more democratic, participative leaders — compared with the tendency of men to adopt a more “command-and-control” style. And other research has shown that female managers tend to motivate people more with positive incentives and more often practice what’s known by researchers as “transformational leadership” (acting as inspirational role models, fostering positive relationships, developing team members’ skills and motivating people to go above and beyond).
The Pew survey is only a poll of public opinion, of course, not evidence of how men and women actually do act in different leadership situations. But despite the disconnect it shows between people slightly favoring women’s traits in leadership — while holding lingering doubts that people are ready to vote for them — it’s also encouraging to see majorities cite no difference between the two.