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New research finds that self-reliance gives women a lot more of a leadership boost than it gives to men

September 28, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642, press@aom.org

Surveys affirm the key leavening role of communality

At a time when females represent only about five percent of the CEOs of S&P500 firms, while holding more than half the management, professional, and related positions in the U.S., it would seem women’s path to the top remains forbiddingly difficult.

Now some new research adds to this paradox. It finds that current public and business attitudes on a major aspect of executive leadership favor women.

Findings reported in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal indicate that when it comes to self-reliance, the public at large views women appreciably more favorably than it views men, crediting them with superior ability to balance self-reliance and communality.

In the words of the new paper, "self-reliant women are seen as similarly competent but more communal than self-reliant men, because people assimilate signals of women's self-reliance to feminine stereotypes of communality. As a result, self-reliance benefits women's leadership evaluations more than men's."

The study presents a contrast to a considerable literature that views women who aspire to executive careers as facing a Catch-22. On the one hand, the communal characteristics typically ascribed to women have been viewed as counting for a good deal less than what scholars call “agency” – that combination of assertiveness, confidence, independence, and dominance widely considered essential to executive leadership; on the other hand, women's efforts to be agentic have commonly been viewed with disfavor.

But the new study, by Rebecca L. Schaumberg of the University of Pennsylvania and Francis J. Flynn of Stanford University, reports online surveys involving a total of more than 1,000 participants that give a decided edge in leadership ability to women exhibiting the distinctly agentic trait of self-reliance over men who were also described as self-reliant. In the words of the paper, "Self-reliance signals low communality for men but not women, because people assimilate self-reliance to the existing stereotype that women are more communal than men…In other words, self-reliance may signal low communality for men but not women because communal feminine stereotypes buffer women from the uncommunal component of self-reliance.”

In an important way, the new paper’s findings parallel those of an October 2015 Academy of Management Journal study of work teams (by Lanaj and Hollenbeck) which found that, far from being penalized for assertive, take-charge initiatives on their teams’ behalf, women got more credit for leadership than men did for undertaking them. This edge was attributed to the fact that assertive behaviors run counter to the traditional association of agentic traits with men and communal traits with women and thereby represent “expectancy-disconfirming behaviors [that] attract perceptual attention from others and contribute disproportionately to evaluations.”

Similarly the new study notes that “whereas men are expected to be self-reliant, women are excused for not being so...Displaying self-reliance would be seen as a positive expectancy violation for women.”

The new research consists of four studies.

■ In one study 265 MBA students averaging 27 years of age 1) agreed to make available leadership evaluations they received in prior places of employment and 2) responded (on a scale of 1/strongly disagree to 5/strongly agree) to a self-reliance survey that included such statements as “I rely on myself most of the time, I rarely rely on others”; “I often do my own thing”; “My personal identity independent of others is very important to me.” Analyzing the relationship of self-reliance to the leadership evaluations participants received, the professors found self-reliance to be positively related to leadership ratings for women but unrelated to those for men. Among participants with low self-reliance, men were rated significantly higher in leadership than women but among those with high self-reliance, the pattern reversed.

Why this reversal? Hypothesizing that self-reliant males are perceived as less communal – that is, less able to work well with others – than self-reliant females and are thus rated lower as leaders, the professors tested this general idea in three online surveys involving people enlisted via a crowd-sourcing Internet service.

■ In the first of these, 123 participants were asked to rate a fictional state legislator described as either high in “self-reliance and self-sufficiency” or highly “ambitious and assertive.” In cases where the legislator was self-reliant, the female was rated appreciably higher in both leadership and communality than the identically described male as well significantly higher than the male and female domineering types.

■ In a second study the professors probed whether there would be similar results in comparisons of corporate leaders. They now surveyed 521 online participants about one or another supposed Silicon Valley CEO who was either self-described as highly self-reliant (“I seek to depend on myself rather than others to get things accomplished”) or strongly bent on power (“Being hungry and assertive is everything”) or who was simply portrayed favorably (“a high-flier in Silicon Valley”). In addition, half the descriptions credited leaders with “integrity and concern for others,” and half did not.

As in the legislator study, the professors found that self-reliant women were rated substantially higher in leadership than identically described men absent any mention of “integrity and concern for others.” But, where those communal traits were attributed to CEOs, the female edge in leadership rating disappeared, which the professors interpret as further evidence that “self-reliance is regarded as a positive leadership trait to the extent that it is accompanied by communality and that self-reliance signals low communality for men.” The finding, Prof. Schaumberg adds, should be particularly persuasive to male leaders on the need to strike a balance between self-reliance and communality.

■ To see if surveying participants about actual Silicon Valley leaders rather than nameless ones would elicit similar results, the researchers replicated the experiment (minus any mentions of integrity and concern for others) using one or another name of four top executives and their firms – Sheryl Sandberg of Google, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn, or Bill Veghte of Hewlett Packard. A new group of 533 online survey participants produced results similar to those of the prior experiment, demonstrating, the professors write, that, notwithstanding participants’ opinions about the actual executives or companies, “evaluations of these leaders still shifted based on the agentic trait the executive displayed.”

In conclusion, Profs. Schaumberg and Flynn surmise that their findings may be true not only of self-reliance but other male-associated traits that could also signal lack of communality. “Such prescriptive traits,” they write, “might include being analytical, rational, or logical. Similar to self-reliance, these traits can signal competence or strong decision-making skills, characteristics that are central to people’s prototypes of good leaders, but they can also signal that one is cold or unfeeling, characteristics that run counter to such leadership prototypes.”

The paper, “Self-Reliance: A Gender Perspective on its Relationship to Communality and Leadership Evaluations,” is in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published six times yearly by the Academy, which, with more than 19,000 members in 118 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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