Alice Eagly
Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University
24:53

Big Think Interview with Alice Eagly

Big Think Interview with Alice Eagly

A conversation with the Northwestern University professor of psychology.

Alice Eagly

Alice Eagly is a social psychologist who has published widely on the psychology of attitudes, especially attitude change and attitude structure. Her work focuses on the psychology of gender, especially sex differences in similarities in leadership, prosocial behavior, aggression, partner preferences and stereotypes. 

Eagly is the author of "Sex Differences in Social Behavior: A Social Role Interpretation," "The Psychology of Attitudes" with co-author Shelly Chaiken, and "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders" with co-author Linda L. Carli. She also is the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in her research specialties.

Now a professor at Northwestern University, she previously taught at Michigan State University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Purdue University.

Transcript

Question: Is there a female leadership style?

Alice Eagly: There are a couple of them, but first let me say that those differences aren’t that women are one way, men are one way.  Those are overlapping distributions.  But there are, on average, some relatively small differences and one of them is that women tend to be somewhat more collaborative, participative, democratic and men a bit more top-down, autocratic, directive.  And it’s not that men aren’t also sometimes collaborative—yes, right—but it is an overall difference that is much discussed. And it could be that that is there because when women are not so collaborative they get more of a negative reaction than men do.  We know that when women start ordering people around—people don’t like to be ordered around, but they particularly don’t like it from a woman—so women may kind of learn that or it may be more of a general preference.

So that is one of the differences. But there is another area where we’ve also found some differences and that is with respect to what leadership researchers call transformational style, which is a style that is rather valued in the modern organizational world, which does involve some moving away from a top-down kind of style.  It involves the leader being more of a role model, an inspiration, a person who is encouraging to others and wants to bring them up and improve their skills, who wants to encourage creativity and who treats people rather as individuals—you know cares about the individual. 

We find that to at least a small extent women epitomize this style more, particularly on the area of treating people as an individual and taking into account their individuality, but also on the other aspects. And then, in addition there is something else that is studied, not as part of transformational style actually, but it’s whether leaders will take more of a reward approach or more of a negative punishment approach.  So if I’m in charge I can look for what you’re doing wrong and say "Stop that, don’t do that, if you keep doing that you know I’m going to fire you, you won’t get a raise" or whatever.  Or you could look for what the person is doing right and say "That is the kind of thing, let’s do more of that." And so women use more the positive approach compared to men who are somewhat more likely to use the negative approach.

Question: Is there still a “glass ceiling?"

Alice Eagly:  The glass ceiling has been with us for awhile and is a very popular metaphor still, so you’ll read that in journalism in particular, but also in the social science literature the metaphor used. I think that it is not a good metaphor. We certainly still have prejudice against women in leadership roles in various ways, so... you could say well glass ceiling is a metaphor for prejudice. But if you look at it in a more precise or detailed way at that notion of a glass ceiling I think we can see how misleading it is. 

For one thing it suggests that the barriers are way up there in the hierarchy so that a woman would of course have a career in the same way as a man, but then she gets near the top.  She thinks she is going to become executive vice president or maybe CEO and then, whoops, she finds out she can’t.  She didn’t realize that before, according to this notion, but she hits her head on the glass ceiling.  So... that is profoundly misleading because the challenges that women face in having successful careers are not just at the top.  They are all the way along the career from step one through step two, step three, all the way through the career.  So the reason you have so few women at the top of some hierarchies—such as being a chief executive officer in the Fortune 500—is that there are few women at that level right before that, so women progressively drop out of the hierarchy.  It isn’t that the women are there in great numbers and then can’t get to that upper level.  It’s a progressive drop out that occurs for many different reasons, so it is a rather odd metaphor actually in terms of not capturing the phenomenon.

Question: Are women misled about their opportunities?

Alice Eagly: It isn’t anybody systematically misleading them, but there is the idea that there is no prejudice and that they have equal opportunity and they’ve lived a life through school and through college with equal opportunity... fairly much. So it seems that that’s true, but then they don’t look out and see, well, women are systematically doing as well in their careers as men, dropping out more, not rising nearly as fast. And so I think that is not that salient to many young women because they’re not in the career yet and then they may think "Well that's a different generation, we have equal opportunity." And then they enter the labyrinth. 

Ask those women 10 years later when their male colleagues very often have moved forward faster than they have or perhaps they’re at home raising children and may never get back to anything like a fast-track career and so then they have a very different set of ideas about it, through experience.  So the problem is to inform younger women in particular about the labyrinth so that they will approach it thoughtfully and not have regret later on—but yet not be discouraging... so it’s kind of discouraging to tell young women "No, we don’t have equal opportunity and let me tell you why." But the labyrinth idea is meant to be in that middle range that you have challenges that your young men colleagues don’t have, but it’s a labyrinth, not a glass ceiling, so maybe if you figure it out and are very thoughtful about it and learn about the contours of the labyrinth you will reach the goals that you have set for yourself in your life. 

Question: What kinds of women make it to the top?

Alice Eagly:  They’re usually very smart.  I think they have thought it through.  I mean there is accidental features of careers, of course, opportunities that happen to come to a person, but I think those women have been thoughtful about their careers. And they’ve made choices that were enabling in various ways. 

You know, one of the biggest challenges for women in terms of career is family of course.  That is the obvious and that comes often relatively young.  When you have all your training, you have your MBA or your law degree or your whatever and then you’re going out on the career just like your male colleagues and then for many women there are those decisions about marriage and childbearing, which can become, depending on how that is managed, can be quite disabling for the career, because they often involve moving off the fast track.  Either some women would drop out and then other women would want to go part-time, understandably, but then they’re off the fast track.

So you see women who are CEOs.  Occasionally they’ve dropped out and stayed home for a few years, but that is very rare.  Usually they either have not had children, or, if they do, they’ve just managed it in other ways.  Perhaps they have one of those husbands who shares equally or whatever or they’ve managed to...  Many women manage to have families and successful careers, but it’s much more challenging often for women than men because women ordinarily have more responsibility for childrearing.  So that is a challenge that comes very early. 

Perhaps many women don’t realize that in studies that have been done that’s you know not managing that well is very damaging to careers.  It’s hard after dropping out to get back to a successful career.  It shouldn’t be.  The on-ramp should be there, but often it’s not. And then the part-time work it should be good quality work, but that could result in promotion, but in fact, that is not the case.  Ordinarily it’s dumbed-down work compared to what you would have if you work a full-time career, and ordinarily there are limited, if any, promotion possibilities.  So you’re on that sidetrack.  Well maybe you can get back on again, but your male colleagues who didn’t do that are way ahead and there is this whole cohort of young eager men and women coming along too.  So it’s that that’s just... one of the turns of the labyrinth is how the family responsibilities are managed by a couple.

Question: Is time the determining factor in the gender gap?

Alice Eagly:  Time is very much a consideration because of what has happened in many professional fields, which is over the last 50 years the amount of time people are expected to spend to be successful has escalated.  My father had a 40-hour week as a professional and... that’s not so normative anymore in terms of professions, law, medicine, management. And then the fast track career within those fields you know people talk about the 80-hour week or whatever and that is an exaggeration, but people often work very long hours. And so then time is very much an issue.  So it’s harder to manage child-rearing and career.  You say okay, I’m just going to work 40 hours, fine and then your male colleague who perhaps has a stay-at-home wife is working 60 or 65 or 70 and so if he is effective to perhaps turning out a lot more work and being more effective, so then that’s disabling.  So time is very much a consideration and then the issue of the work in the home of how that is shared or not shared or who is doing it; whether it’s being done by somebody other than the mother and father; is the father taking as much work as the mother, et cetera. So the division of labor in the home tends to be unequal.  Not so wildly unequal as it was in an earlier generation, but it still tends to be unequal even if both husband and wife are employed full-time.

Question: Should women act like men to get ahead?

Alice Eagly:  Not necessarily.  It does depend on the larger environment of whether it’s a really strongly masculine culture organization or not. But, in general, aping men by being "just like a man."  You know culturally if somebody says she is just like a man it is not a compliment.  So being a perfect imitator of the male style usually doesn’t work because people find that jarring and it involves more kind of authoritative top down style often depending on the situation of course, but and so in general women do better with a blend of masculine and feminine.  Of course a leadership role involves taking charge and being authoritative and that is culturally masculine, so you do have to do that.

But when women blend that with culturally feminine qualities they’re usually better accepted in the role.  So what would those qualities be?  They are fine.  They are very positive qualities that would be... Yes, be nice.  Do take account of the individual.  Maybe say how are the kids or make relationships more personal and let people know you care about them.  Those kinds of behaviors are more important to a woman in most managerial roles than they would be to a man.  Men do it sometimes, but not necessarily and they don’t particularly need to.  If they don’t do those things people think "That's okay.  He is a man."  He doesn’t you know.  He doesn’t particularly do that, but when a woman doesn’t do that she tends then to be more in an exclusively masculine mode and doesn’t fare as well.

So people like women to acknowledge their femininity, but yet that doesn’t involve moving off into some parts of the feminine repertoire.  It doesn’t being very compliant.  It doesn’t mean crying at work.  It doesn’t mean a lot of those things, but it does mean taking some of the positive feminine qualities of, in fact, being nice and caring about people into the managerial role that women will fare better and I think a lot of the women who do rise actually have that blend. But not necessarily.  I think it’s also true that if a woman is extremely rare in a role, you know she is the first woman who has ever done that role, and it is a kind of a masculine environment—perhaps military or whatever or in some political roles—that she may need to take on a more masculine style because the role is thought to demand so much assertiveness and toughness and if she doesn’t prove herself to be as tough as a man that she will lose authority.  So there are those situations, but I think that’s not typical.  Usually women fare well in the blend and they should not try to ape the men, but to take on positive masculine qualities and positive feminine qualities.

Question: Are women better leaders?

Alice Eagly:  Better, there is an argument for that.  In particular, the style that I talked about as transformational is known to be effective.  There is a large research literature on transformational style that shows that it is correlated with effectiveness. And furthermore when we talked about the positive and the negative, using the positive to encourage what the people are doing right rather than trying to get rid of the negative.  The positive is more effective in general than the negative.  So if you look at the data on what styles work in a modern organization, what work better, you could say women have got it right in that they tend to be systematically somewhat more than men in general doing what we know works. So that is advantageous.

You say well then women are better managers, and that would be a little simplistic because you forget about the other part, the prejudice part. And so women kind of have to prove that they’re good and their leadership is not as readily accepted, particularly in high positions.  It’s accepted somewhat less by men than by women.  So you have to factor in the prejudicial factor, but if you look just behaviorally, insofar as we can tell, women in fact have a more ideal style slightly more than men in terms of what epitomizes what we know is effective. So I think that many people... there is a little bit of evidence, you know they’re kind of skeptical: "I don’t want a woman boss." And then they get in this situation and they find that she is good to work with in various ways, so there is that. 

Then there is some research on the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1,000 and now in European companies that suggests that women may be doing well in terms of helping companies be profitable because there are studies that look at the relationship between the percentage of women in the leadership group in boards of directors and executive groups and then you can relate that easily to the bottom line, the profitability of the company by various indicators that we have; business indicators like profitability in various senses.  And so, several studies—including a European study now by the McKinsey organization—has shown that there is a positive relationship: more women, more profit.  You know it’s not a huge correlation, but it’s there.  It’s there in the modern studies.  If you look back 20 or 25 years it wasn’t there.  There really wasn’t a relationship. But now it tends to be there. And so people say "See? More women, more profit." And of course as a social scientist I have to say "Wait a minute didn’t we learn something in school about correlations not causation?"

And so we don’t really know why that relationship is present and we have to consider the opposite causation of course that perhaps the more profitable companies are able to have the staff to worry about diversity, to seek out the really great women and attract them away from the other companies. And so the causation could go from profitability to enabling the hiring of excellent women.

So we don’t know the causation, but anyway, it’s a good point.  If anybody says "We can’t add a bunch of women to leadership because you know our profit will fall," you say: "Well actually the correlation goes the other way." And there are arguments of course in favor of diversity in organizations broadly that make sense that if you bring people together, run an organization, are making decisions and they all think alike that’s not good, right?  They are not considering alternatives and so people’s social background has a lot to do with how they think, the kinds of life experiences. So if we bring people together who have had different life experiences they are potentially more creative and there are some studies that have shown that. And so one of the great dimensions of differentiation of course is male/female, but it’s also racial and ethnic, religion, age. So at least potentially if you bring people who think together they’re going to think they have more ideas to build on.  They’re not just all coming to the same conclusion easily. 

Question: Are women better suited to the new economy?

Alice Eagly: In a simpler world a person could sit at the top of an organization perhaps and tell people what to do.  I don’t know if I should use Henry Ford as my best example, but hey, built that car, right? And it was black and everybody bought it and he was immensely successful. But the automobile industry then compared to the automobile industry now... it's a very different world.  You know could a person sit at the top of General Motors or Ford Corporation now and just sort of know what to do, what kind of car to build and build it and everybody will buy it?  Uh-uh. 

You need all kinds of expertise and smart people, engineers and designers and you need to be linked up in a worldwide basis because you’re going to manufacture your car here and there and there are all those competitors.  So think of how complicated the job is, so leadership has changed in part because of this great interdependence and the fact that you can’t rely just on your own expertise by any means.  Nobody has that much expertise, so you have to be good at getting the organization going, encouraging the people, being a bit more of a coach to keep those parts going, to get the best out of people who are in your organization. But you have to be kind of good to them to get the best out of them, right? And so it’s a job of much more complexity that of course takes on more of the soft skills or social skills. So the fact that the nature of management has so profoundly changed in order to be successful for a company it also moves it away from masculinity that is sort of an old fashioned top-down type of leadership to something that is more, by the way, happens to be more culturally favorable to women than the old kind of management.

John Richard Cookson
September 17, 2010

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