Leaders Do Matter—But When Does Their Gender Matter, Too?
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Leadership Dec 5, 2013

Lead­ers Do Mat­ter — But When Does Their Gen­der Mat­ter, Too?

Coun­tries with high lev­els of eth­nic diver­si­ty often suf­fer from slow eco­nom­ic growth — unless there is a woman in charge

Women as leaders tend to do better in ethnically diverse environments .

Published under a Creative Commons License. Photo credit: Institute for Inclusive Security

Based on the research of

Susan E. Perkins

Katherine W. Phillips

Nicholas Pearce

Listening: Interview with Nicholas Pearce and Susan Perkins on Female Leadership

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Eth­nic diver­si­ty is usu­al­ly tout­ed as an objec­tive virtue for teams, orga­ni­za­tions and nations. But econ­o­mists know that diver­si­ty can be a dou­ble-edged sword: research has shown that high lev­els of so-called eth­nic frac­tion­al­iza­tion” are asso­ci­at­ed with a decline in gross domes­tic prod­uct. It’s a well estab­lished find­ing,” says Nicholas Pearce, a clin­i­cal assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. Assem­bling a diverse group of indi­vid­u­als is easy; inte­grat­ing them into an inclu­sive whole is hard.”

But instead of tak­ing this cor­re­la­tion as a giv­en, Susan Perkins, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, along with Pearce and Kather­ine Phillips of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty won­dered if there was some way to lever­age diver­si­ty instead of hav­ing it be a threat to progress, and what kind of leader might be able to do that.” The researchers found inspi­ra­tion in the social psy­chol­o­gy lit­er­a­ture on the dif­fer­ences in lead­er­ship styles between men and women. Might female lead­ers — who tend to have a more par­tic­i­pa­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive style than men,” says Pearce — be well-equipped to coun­ter­act, or even over­turn, the neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tion between diver­si­ty and eco­nom­ic growth?

Much of the [psy­cho­log­i­cal] research has focused on how this lead­er­ship-style dif­fer­ence plays out in small groups or teams,” Pearce explains. With the rise of female lead­ers on the nation­al lev­el over the last half-cen­tu­ry, it made us won­der if some of the lessons we’ve learned about women in orga­ni­za­tions could trans­late in the gov­ern­ment sector.”

Where Female Lead­ers Thrive

To inves­ti­gate the ques­tion, their research team spent three years build­ing a unique data set from scratch” to cap­ture obser­va­tions of male and female nation­al lead­ers in 139 coun­tries over fifty-five years, while also mea­sur­ing gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP) per­for­mance along­side eth­nic frac­tion­al­iza­tion (EF) lev­els. Diver­si­ty and inclu­sion are not just nor­ma­tive con­cepts we should get behind because they’ll make us feel bet­ter,” Pearce says. Our process was about try­ing to go beyond descrip­tive sta­tis­tics to actu­al­ly com­pare per­for­mance outcomes.”

The authors’ analy­sis recon­firmed the asso­ci­a­tion between high­ly diverse coun­tries and slug­gish eco­nom­ic growth. But when the gen­der of a nation­al leader was tak­en into account, the rela­tion­ship between EF and GDP became dra­mat­i­cal­ly polar­ized. Their mod­el pre­dicts that in high­ly diverse coun­tries, hav­ing a female leader is asso­ci­at­ed with a 6% high­er GDP growth rate, on aver­age, than hav­ing a man at the helm. The more diverse the nation, the more extreme the effect: In Liberia, one of the most eth­ni­cal­ly frac­tion­al­ized coun­tries we sur­veyed, the pre­dict­ed GDP growth was 6.15% under a female leader and 0.69% if the leader was male,” Pearce says.

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The authors had drawn inspi­ra­tion from their Kel­logg col­league Ben­jamin Jones’ paper Do Lead­ers Mat­ter?” Not only did it seem to be the case that lead­ers do, in fact, mat­ter, but so too does their gen­der — at least in coun­tries like Liberia. In coun­tries with a lot of inter­nal con­flict, often­times peo­ple are look­ing for sig­nals that the per­son in charge is going to be col­lab­o­ra­tive and not dic­ta­to­r­i­al or self-inter­est­ed,” Pearce says. Women’s gen­der role is sym­bol­ic of col­lab­o­ra­tion, that they’re going to empow­er mar­gin­al­ized voices.”

The find­ings matched the authors’ obser­va­tions about male and female lead­er­ship styles and their effects on the per­for­mance of com­pa­nies and teams. What intrigued us about [this effect] on the coun­try lev­el also has great impli­ca­tions for oth­er are­nas in which Kel­logg deci­sion mak­ers might find them­selves,” says Perkins. If we look across indus­tries where female CEOs have had a high­er impact than males, often­times it is in sit­u­a­tions of ambi­gu­i­ty and inter­nal con­flict where change or trans­for­ma­tion is nec­es­sary. On aver­age, women don’t out­per­form men as CEOs, but they tend to in these sit­u­a­tions.” By this log­ic, a com­pa­ny like Yahoo — strug­gling to rede­fine itself to its own employ­ees and share­hold­ers, not just to its cus­tomers or com­peti­tors — was wise to install Maris­sa May­er as CEO.

Agili­ty, Not Gen­der Labels

Some cau­tion should be tak­en in inter­pret­ing the data. Perkins and Pearce make no claims to estab­lish­ing a causal rela­tion­ship between eth­nic diver­si­ty, female lead­er­ship, and improved GDP per­for­mance. It’s a com­pelling cor­re­la­tion, but fur­ther work needs to be done to fig­ure out what dri­ves the phe­nom­e­non,” Pearce says. The num­ber of female lead­ers in the dataset — 61 out of a total of 1,338 sur­veyed over fifty-five years — was also rel­a­tive­ly small.

The us ver­sus them lead­er­ship men­tal­i­ty is run­ning its course, and col­lab­o­ra­tive lead­er­ship styles are more val­ued than they were before.

In addi­tion, the authors stress that their find­ings should not be inter­pret­ed as a blan­ket con­fir­ma­tion of gen­der lead­er­ship stereo­types. The mes­sage is not, If you’re a man, you shouldn’t be lead­ing a diverse coun­try going through inter­nal con­flict,’” says Pearce. The idea is that any leader in such a sit­u­a­tion should per­haps be more inten­tion­al about lead­ing inclu­sive­ly and col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly. It just so hap­pens that these char­ac­ter­is­tics tend to be embod­ied in or asso­ci­at­ed with female lead­er­ship styles.” Perkins agrees, not­ing that these find­ings both stretch and shift the soci­etal expec­ta­tion of gen­der roles.”

The authors also resist mak­ing val­ue judg­ments about lead­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly in a more female” style ver­sus com­pet­i­tive­ly in a more male” style. Nei­ther is always bad or always good. Some­times hard­ened resolve is crit­i­cal, and oth­er times lis­ten­ing and engag­ing is crit­i­cal,” Pearce says. What’s more impor­tant than gen­der label­ing, he adds, is agili­ty in a leader — whether it is a man or a woman. You don’t want some­one who’s so focused on inclu­sion that they can’t make a deci­sion, or some­one at the oth­er extreme who’s so dri­ven that they don’t include oth­ers as they make crit­i­cal deci­sions” he says. It’s not one or the oth­er,’ it’s both’ — being able to enact dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship styles giv­en the needs of the moment.”

Female Lead­er­ship Ascendant?

But rare is the nation­al leader who can morph his or her style to fit a shift­ing zeit­geist. And Pearce believes that in an increas­ing­ly ambigu­ous and inter­con­nect­ed 21st-cen­tu­ry glob­al econ­o­my, the Us ver­sus Them lead­er­ship men­tal­i­ty is run­ning its course, and col­lab­o­ra­tive lead­er­ship styles are more val­ued than they were before.” Will that trans­late into ever more female lead­ers enter­ing the nation­al stage — extend­ing a trend that the authors mea­sured in their data? (Accord­ing to their paper, the num­ber of female nation­al lead­ers in a giv­en year has quadru­pled since the ear­ly 1950s.”)

Explor­ing this pos­si­bil­i­ty is exact­ly what the authors hope to study next, says Susan Perkins: The sci­ence shows that peo­ple per­ceive males and females to have dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship char­ac­ter­is­tics, but how often do peo­ple act on those per­cep­tions and choose a female leader?” The ques­tion is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant as demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tions spread into for­mer­ly dic­ta­to­r­i­al or auto­crat­ic regimes in the Mid­dle East and devel­op­ing world — with or with­out pos­i­tive social and eco­nom­ic out­comes. What if the Arab Spring hap­pened again — would we say, Put a female leader in there’? That’s a stretch,” Perkins says. But would a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion unfold dif­fer­ent­ly if there were an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a female leader? It’s an intrigu­ing ques­tion to explore.”

Featured Faculty

Susan E. Perkins

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations from 2006-2016

Nicholas Pearce

Clinical Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, technology, and design topics. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

About the Research

Perkins, Susan, Katherine W. Phillips and Nicholas A. Pearce. 2013. “Ethnic Diversity, Gender, and National Leaders.” Journal of International Affairs. 67(1): 85–104.

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