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Men Vs. Women In Leadership

Apr 12, 2013 | Updated Jun 12, 2013

Ann Friedman's piece "Why Female Politicians Aren't Always Pro-Women," in The Cut this week raises some important questions about women in public positions. Friedman touches on the argument that gender parity in politics is important because women lead differently from men -- an argument she's not having.

"Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that a woman is biologically predisposed to govern in a way that's discernibly different from a man of the same political persuasion," Friedman writes.

I agree with her there -- I don't buy into a "biological difference" that cannot be scientifically proven. But how could I reconcile this perspective with the mounds of research indicating that women do in fact lead differently?

According to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Political Science, women are more effective lawmakers than men despite being underrepresented in all areas of politics.

Female leaders are seen as more accommodating, more invested in interpersonal dynamics and more likely to reward good work than male leaders.

Some laboratory studies have reported that female leaders are less effective, but a 2011 study from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid concluded that "women make better bosses." Researchers found that female managers were more likely to monitor employee feedback and development more closely, promote interpersonal communication, and include employees in the decision-making process.

So, there are differences. But what if these differences are not due to a biological disposition, but a cultural one?

The report "Girls Just Wanna Not Run," released last week by the School of Public Affairs at American University, indicates that male and female children are socialized and encouraged very differently when it comes to running for any kind of office. Is it too much of a step to suggest that, if boys and girls are encouraged to develop different skills, they act differently -- especially when they reach positions of power?

The question we should be asking here is not "do men and women lead differently," but "do we teach men and women to lead differently?"

We probably do.

It's hard to deny that male and female children are socialized differently -- this point was a big part of Sheryl Sandberg's thesis in "Lean In." Take, for example, aggression. Aggression in girls is seen as problematic, translated into bitchiness and jealousy. An aggressive girl is a "mean girl;" an aggressive boy is just a boy.

Friedman claims that "[A]s (presumably) women continue to make gains in all areas of society, my hunch is that the 'women govern differently' theory will also slowly disappear."

On this point, I disagree. I don't think the notion of men and women governing differently will disappear as more women take up prominent positions -- I think we need a bottom-up transformation of how we teach girls and young women to think about power.

This doesn't mean that we should vote women into public positions simply because they are women -- far from it. But we should be teaching young girls to become leaders the same way we are teaching boys.

As for how we do that... I'll be taking suggestions.