Women make up almost 60 percent of the labor force but fewer than 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives. They do a bit better in the government, where they account for 17 percent of Congress and 12 percent of state governors, but they’re still underrepresented in high-profile fields.
Samantha Paustian-Underdahl, assistant professor of management at Florida International University, wanted to find out why. “There are so many explanations for why this could be, but one main belief has been that men are considered more effective leaders than women,” Paustian-Underdahl explains. In other words, maybe women are losing out on promotions because of a culture-wide bias against them.
So she and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte conducted a meta-analysis—that’s when you take data used for previous studies and analyze it in a new way—to see if people assume men are better leaders than women. It turns out that no, they don’t. Sometimes they even believe the opposite.
“We looked at all sorts of fields: education, business, mid-level management, executives,” says Paustian-Underdahl, “and across all these settings there was either no significant difference or women were viewed as more effective.” There are some possible explanations for this: Recent trends in management strategy have emphasized teamwork and collaboration. Those require people skills, which women are often perceived to be have more of than men. A competing theory says that when a woman does make it to a CEO-level position, people assume she must be exceptionally intelligent or competent to have risen in such a male-dominated world.
The only area where men fared better than women was when they were asked to evaluate their own skills. “Women feel that they’re not as effective, which may mean that they’re less likely to step up and ask for a raise or a promotion,” says Paustian-Underdahl. But she cautions that rating yourself too highly isn’t a good trait to have either. “You don’t want to be walking around talking about how awesome you are when those around you don’t think so,” she says. So while men do seem to have better professional self-confidence than women, it’s unclear how much women’s more subdued approach hurts their careers.
So why don’t we have more female CEOs or politicians? “Maybe it’s work-family issues, maybe it’s just that because so many men are already in leadership positions, and there’s a natural tendency for humans to gravitate to humans that are similar to them, that there’s an inclination to promote other men—a sort of group favoritism,” Paustian-Underdahl says. “There are so many possible explanations, but I do think we can definitively say we’ve weeded this one out.”