The XX Factor

Women Are More Likely to Be Seen as Leaders Than Men, Unless They Are Evaluating Themselves

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. What does she think of her leadership?

Photo by Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

A new paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology investigates “the potential existence of a female leadership advantage.” Researchers rounded up 95 studies that assess perceptions of male and female authority. What they discovered was that both genders were equally likely to be perceived as competent leaders:

Results show that when all leadership contexts are considered, men and women do not differ in perceived leadership effectiveness.

Yet, looking a little closer, variations start to emerge:

When other-ratings only are examined, women are rated as significantly more effective than men. In contrast, when self-ratings only are examined, men rate themselves as significantly more effective than women rate themselves.


So people more frequently identified female bosses as skilled leaders, unless they were self-evaluating, in which case the guys suddenly all became Napoleon and Alexander the Great, and the women shrank like a patch of ice in spring. This ice-patch effect goes by many names (most recently the confidence gap) and appears in a thousand data points and anecdotes, and it is a demon we’ll continue to wrestle, but—wow: Take ego out of the picture (and note that some women probably nurse the same ego men do but feel less comfortable exposing it to science), and XX is seen to code for better leadership skills than XY. This is … unexpected.


But it is also not necessarily the coup it seems to be. While people may perceive women as competent bigwigs intellectually, getting the world on board with female CEOs or female presidents requires emotional buy-in too. In November, Gallup released a poll suggesting that more Americans prefer a male boss than prefer a lady boss. (To their credit, the largest plurality of all preferred a boss boss—that is, they had no gender preference.) In the same way that parts of society hold beautifully unimpeachable and progressive opinions about gay rights but might still flinch at two guys kissing, respect for someone’s leadership in the abstract is only half the battle.

Anyway. The results of this new study are at least promising. But let’s aim for the day when studies indicate that women are seen as great leaders, and polls reveal that Americans no longer prefer male leaders, and we read these results in offices and classrooms and boardrooms that actually boast equal numbers of male and female leaders. And then we male and female worker bees and supervisors and scholars can all go to happy hour together to toast our consistency.