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.
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.
Recorded September 17, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson