When Versus Whether: Gender Differences in Leadership

In contemporary society, there is a significant rise in the number of women assuming leadership positions compared to past generations. Nevertheless, this raises the question: Do these growing numbers equate to equal access to opportunities? What are the common gender disparities seen in professional environments? 

APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum chats with Hannah Bowles from Harvard Business School about her new article reviewing under what conditions differences between men and women might emerge. They discuss how ambiguity and stereotypes can function to exacerbate or minimize differences between men and women. 

Send us your thoughts and questions at  underthecortex@psychologicalscience.org.

Unedited transcript

[00:00:00.000] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

In today’s world, we are witnessing a notable increase in the number of women taking on leadership roles compared to previous generations. However, it prompts us to question, do these rising numbers translate to equal access to opportunities? What are the typical gender differences observed in professional settings? This is Under the Cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. In this episode, Under the Cortex examines gender differences in leadership, particularly in relation to negotiation and risk-taking. I’m joined by Hannah Bowles from Harvard University, who has a recent article on this topic, Published in APS’s Journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science. Together, we will explore not just whether gender differences exist in leadership, but also the crucial aspect of when they occur. Hannah, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex.

[00:01:05.040] – Hannah Bowles

Thank you for having me.

[00:01:07.850] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

We are very excited to host you on the podcast. Your article is remarkable. I’m curious, what sparked your initial interest in diving into gender-related dynamics within leadership contexts?

[00:01:21.170] – Hannah Bowles

Well, to the point you make in the opening, there has been a lot of progress. We are seeing sectors where women are dominating, such as the nonprofit sector. Then we’re also still seeing sectors where women are relatively scarce in top leadership positions. That was one of the motivations for this paper is to think about under what circumstances are we more likely to see effects of gender, sex on things like leadership emergence or some of these other behaviors that tend to be associated with those stories about who rises to leadership, such as risk-taking and negotiation?

[00:01:59.650] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Yeah, I’m very excited about asking you more questions. But before that, let’s have a teachable moment for all of us here. You use very specific terminology in your paper to describe differences among individuals. You use gender sex. What language would you like us to use today on this podcast?

[00:02:18.630] – Hannah Bowles

I propose we use gender sex because the combination of gender sex is basically just a way to acknowledge that we can’t really cleanly separate effects of biological characteristics such as reproductive capacity or physical strength and size from the social construction of gender. We now use this term gender sex, or some people say sex-gender.

[00:02:42.950] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Yeah, thank you very much. Now our listeners know the reasons why we are using this. I want to go back to the paper. Your paper specifically addresses negotiations. How exactly do gender/sex roles come into play in the negotiation scene?

[00:02:59.420] – Hannah Bowles

Well, where we have the clearest evidence on gender sex effects in negotiation is in relation more to gender, gender stereotypes. For instance, there are descriptive stereotypes, what I sometimes refer to as do stereotypes, our expectations of how men and women… I’m going to use largely a binary frame because this paper was based on a review of studies of gender sex that were overwhelmingly just comparing men and women. But I’m happy to talk more broadly about how to be more inclusive in that regard, which we need to be as a field of scholars. But there are these descriptive stereotypes about how we think men and women will behave or perform. Then there are these prescriptive stereotypes that are about how we think men and women should behave, what is appropriate or attractive behavior. On the descriptive side, particularly, I’m going to stick for a moment to studies that have been conducted mainly in US, there’s a stereotype that men are better negotiators than women. When that type of stereotype is activated, particularly in a subtle way, it increases the likelihood that men and women fulfill those stereotypes and that men do better than women. Now, Laura Cray has done this really wonderful research where she activates different types of gender stereotypes.

[00:04:20.420] – Hannah Bowles

There’s that one that I described to you of men as more competitive, assertive, bargainers, and therefore, they’ll do better than women in a negotiation. She introduces stereotypes about good negotiators as very good listeners and collaborators, and shows that if she introduces those stereotypes, she can actually get performance with women favoring men. Again, these effects are very situational, but those are examples of how gendered notions of negotiators can influence behavior and performance. I do want to highlight this other category of stereotypes, and that is these prescriptive notions. This is this idea of how people should behave. Within the US context, and probably individualist cultures more broadly. We, again, have that stereotype of men as more individualistic, more self-assertive, more dominant, and women as tending to put others before themselves. We not only think they are like that, we think they should be like that. There is some evidence that when women self-assert and ask for things like higher pay, that they encounter more resistance, at least in part because people find that a little unattractive. They find it more attractive when women are assertive on behalf of others. We have evidence also showing within the negotiation realm, if you simply shift, whether you’re negotiating for your own pay or for somebody else’s, women tend to be more assertive on behalf of others than they are on behalf of themselves.

[00:05:50.590] – Hannah Bowles

That’s an example that whenever I’m teaching negotiation or doing women’s leadership development, I get a lot of agreement, a lot of nodding in the room that really resonates with them, that they’re fierce advocates for others, but feel a little bit more inhibited advocating for themselves, at least in our cultural context.

[00:06:07.870] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

We are all trying to match the expectations that the society gives us.

[00:06:14.350] – Hannah Bowles

Yeah, exactly. Can I give you another cultural example, which is really compelling? There’s work being led by a woman named Vivian Chan, and she has been highlighting how much of our research, for instance, in negotiation, is conducted from this Western Eastern individualist cultural frame. What research, cross-cultural psychologists, are showing that stereotypes of masculinity tend to follow the norms of the culture. In individualist cultures, we stereotype men as highly individualistic. But in communal cultures, like you would see in China, the ideal is a more communal stereotype that is associated with men. What you see is that in individualist cultures, if men are stereotyped as more competitive than women, we see the fulfillment of that stereotype in terms of competitive bargaining outcomes. Men, on average, will do a little better than women in competitive bargaining. But what Vivian Shannon colleagues have shown is that if you switch and you start looking at studies conducted in more collectivist context, because women are stereotyped as more competitive than men, women tend to outperform men in competitive bargaining exercises in more collective as cultures. Again, it goes to this cross contextual variation in how gender manifestsests and then the role of how it’s socially constructed within different situations.

[00:07:43.030] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Yeah. It goes back to the very clear phrasing that you had in your paper. It is about when it occurs, right? These are very powerful examples about different contexts. Let me talk a little bit about risk-taking. In In our paper, in addition to negotiations, you also address risk-taking. Why did you choose to study these two concepts together?

[00:08:08.840] – Hannah Bowles

I have to give credit for this one to Heidi Liu, who’s the third author on our paper, who, as a doctoral student, at Harvard, became very interested in gender and risk. She had actually been a Jeopardy contestant. She was very interested in the stereotyping of male and female contestants, particularly online. She did as part of her dissertation this study looking at betting behavior on daily doubles, comparing male and female contestants in Jeopardy. What she found is the only context in which she really saw men being, not very much, but slightly more risk taking than women was on masculine stereotypic questions, and that that effect tended to diminish when you move to feminine stereotypic questions or questions that were just less gender-stereotypic. What we ended up doing was going back and saying, Wow, I wonder if this is a broader effect. We went back to this classic burns at all meta-analysis of gender and risk, and we coded all the tasks that had been in the studies that were in that meta-analysis, or almost all of them, every one that we could get a hold of. Then we had outside coders code them for the degree to which they were masculine stereotypic within the era in which the study had been conducted.

[00:09:24.870] – Hannah Bowles

We replicated that effect that she had suspected would happen and found in jeopardy. That is that we observed significant effects of gender sex on those tasks that were perceived as masculine stereotypic, but that the gender sex effects, this difference of men being more risk-loving than women, faded when you moved into tasks that were more feminine, stereotypic, or just less gendered. That’s in the supplement, actually, of this paper.

[00:09:55.010] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Yeah, from a very famous TV show to this gender roles. I Exactly. I will study. Yeah, I would like to go back to your theory a little bit. You propose in the paper that two main factors that you theorize would impact the extent gender differences in negotiations, risk-taking and leadership may emerge. What are those two factors?

[00:10:19.030] – Hannah Bowles

I should emphasize that we’re really talking about the likelihood, likelihood and extent, but likelihood you’re going to see something. What we’re basically arguing is that you can think almost about two levers. So to increase the likelihood that you’re going to see something, it’s more likely if gender, sex is relevant and salient within the context. And I’ll explain in a moment what I mean by that. And then the other factor that we’re highlighting is the degree of ambiguity. That is, to what extent do I know what I’m doing in this situation, or do I have to figure it out? And what we basically argue is that you’re most likely to see gender, sex effects in those situations where people aren’t exactly sure what it is they should be doing. Therefore, they are searching their past experience, mental schema, or situational cues to figure out what to do. Again, if gender sex is more relevant to the context, then it’s just more likely to fill in the blanks of how one should behave. Some examples of factors that heighten the relevance of gender and sex for the actors within the situation or the audience, the observers. There’s a lot of evidence within psychology, social psychology, that gender effects are influenced not only by internal factors to the actors, but also the expectations of the people with whom one is interacting within the social environment.

[00:11:51.620] – Hannah Bowles

And so gender congruence is one of those things. I use the example already of negotiating for your sofa more pay. If I am a woman, particularly in a US context, and I’m facing a pay negotiation, and I may feel this pinch of, will I be perceived as pushy? What is appropriate? If I’m not really sure what are the standards, what I should be asking for, How should I go about this? What are they going to think of me if I assert myself in the negotiation? That’s a circumstance in which we are arguing. You’re more likely to see gender sex effects in, say, the propensity to negotiate or how assertive one acts or offer behavior, outcomes. If, however, again, I switch to, I’m advocating for somebody else, this is not gender incongruent for a woman. It’s not gender incongruent for a man. Gender is just less relevant and salient. I’m less likely to see those effects because it’s just not one of those situations that trigger gendered expectations. Now, what we have is from this early study, that early set of studies that actually motivated this framework some many years is we manipulated ambiguity, actually, on that self-other distinction.

[00:13:04.950] – Hannah Bowles

We found that self-other effect when ambiguity was fairly high, people weren’t exactly sure what they should be asking for. But if you gave them clear standards to focus on in the negotiation, objective criteria for determining how they should behave, even whether you were negotiating for yourself or somebody else, didn’t make as much of a difference. People focus more on the objective information. Do you get what I mean? Now, another factor that’s going to influence the relevance and salience of gender is culture, which we already talked about. Another factor, a third one that’s very important is intersecting identities. Another way in which the study of gender, sex, and psychological research has progressed is that we’re realizing that if you just talk about gender, and then particularly in a binary frame, you’re very often talking about privileged people. It’s like heterosexual, usually white, educated, like men and women from the dominant group, and that it’s really important that we take into account, well, what is status and privilege? How much of this is gender or how much of this is power? And so, for instance, there are studies showing that we found evidence that, again, using the example of pain negotiations, because it’s just a convenient one, there’s a lot of studies that women encounter more resistance than men, women, writ large, encounter more resistance than men in pain negotiations.

[00:14:33.770] – Hannah Bowles

Well, now there are studies showing that black men encounter more resistance in pain negotiations than white men. Also that East Asian men, in particular, feel inhibited from asserting themselves in pain negotiations. We have to increasingly look at, wait a minute, is gender really what’s salient in this situation and relevant in this situation, or are there other identities that are at in influencing behavior.

[00:15:02.510] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Are there things that organizations can do to help mitigate gender differences, you think?

[00:15:09.040] – Hannah Bowles

Oh, definitely. A lot of this is just simply good management practices. It’s not special management practices, but Some of that can be really tracking on data like who gets what types of work opportunities, how are people compensated, who talks, who gets Are the pictures on the walls dominated by a certain type of person, or are they showing a mix of people from your community? Data, objective criteria, are you really thinking about what it is you’re doing? If you’re not looking at these things, I think it’s more likely for gendered norms to fill in the blanks or just historic patterns, to not even realize that historic patterns that may have, for instance, favored men over women are actually operating within the environment. The more you’re focused on evidence, I think that’s really important. Another thing which is interesting, we’ve got a new case study I should highlight at Harvard Business School about Progress, which is a tech company. They did a whole bunch of this reducing ambiguity stuff. They did a real clear analysis of compensation standards, relative to levels, what were the skills associated with different levels. But then they also trained their managers and their employees in all of those levels and also how to have conversations with one another about career paths so that people not only had clear information, but they also were skilled in how to use that information, which is also really important because a lot of organizations set policies at the high levels, and then people talk about them dying at the level of the managers because managers just aren’t really sure how to put things into practice.

[00:16:53.450] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

There needs to be an organizational effort, not at the individual level as a collective level, in a sense, to reduce the ambiguities.

[00:17:03.860] – Hannah Bowles

To reduce the ambiguities. Then also in the process of measuring all these things, think about going back to the relevance and salience of gender. Are we predominantly profiling one demographic of people as our leaders or in certain types of roles? There’s this wonderful work by Sapna Cherian, where she looks at whether women are inclined to go into computer computer science, and she decorates the room in a more inclusive way or in a masculine, stereotypic way. She finds it just being in a room that’s more inclusive, that’s got plants and magazines and pictures of mountains or whatever. Women are like, Oh, yeah, I fit in this environment. But if you create an environment that’s got techno, geeky, masculine, stereotypic stuff all around them, the women are asking themselves, Well, do I fit? There can be just subtle things within the environment that’s worth looking around. What are the messages that we’re sending implicitly?

[00:18:03.330] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Yeah. Again, this example also suggests that it goes back to the context, right? What people think and how people behave in terms of gender, sex roles.

[00:18:15.640] – Hannah Bowles

Absolutely. Yeah. If you’re clear what you’re expecting from people in particular roles, and if you have a mix of people in a variety of roles, I wouldn’t go do a gender, sex study in that environment because I don’t think I’m going to get any effects. Yeah.

[00:18:31.960] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

[00:18:35.150] – Hannah Bowles

Yeah, I would like to add a point that my co-author, Jens Mazei, I emphasized during the writing process, which I thought was so important. That is that Using this framework for thinking about when gender sex effects are most likely is really useful for diagnosing environments and for predicting when things are happening. But he also emphasized that it’s really important for replications, and replications a hot issue right now within psychological science. What he emphasized is that if one study gets an effect and another doesn’t, that these would be useful criteria for looking at, Well, did you not get the effect because there Was it really a low level of ambiguity or did you get the effect because there was really a low level of ambiguity, or did you get the effect because there was a high level of ambiguity? Or, for instance, did you run your study in a masculine stereotypic context as opposed to one that was more gender inclusive, for instance? Would those contextual factors help to explain under what conditions, those theoretical as well as empirical boundary conditions of the effects that we are predicting?

[00:19:40.540] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

Hannah, thank you very much. This was a wonderful conversation.

[00:19:44.790] – Hannah Bowles

Thank you so much again for having us on.

[00:19:49.080] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Hannah Bowles from Harvard University. If you want to know more about this research, visit psychologicalscience.org. Would you to reach us, send us your thoughts and questions at underthecorex@psychologicalscience.org.

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