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How real is the 'woman card' in leadership?

July 11, 2016
Diversity & Inclusion

In the past few months of his Presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump has said variations of the following about Hillary Clinton: “The only card she has is the woman card.” Commentators have generally attacked his line of reasoning as sexist, or something that could strategically backfire on him.

Of course, most of the prevailing polling evidence is that women do support Hillary Clinton in greater numbers than Mr. Trump. But do women support Clinton simply because she’s female?

The media certainly seems to suggest a certain amount of this gender narrative. For example, NPR recently proclaimed that “the 2016 Presidential Election could boast a historic gender gap.” This observation reflects the fact that Trump is polling particularly poorly with women and those women may turn to Clinton.

However, women’s preferences for Clinton may not have much to do with her gender. Several studies have shown that gender doesn’t play into people’s votes nearly as much as their party affiliation.

All of this focus on gender during this political season caused me to explore how much gender matters in leadership, more broadly. How often do women really support other women leaders due to their shared gender, and why would this be the case?

In the book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the World, authors John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio surveyed 64,000 people in 13 countries about the characteristics and traits that people believe are most important for leaders to possess. Those surveyed showed a strong preference for selflessness, empathy and loyalty in their leaders, which the respondents deemed “feminine values.” Of course, these values are facially gender neutral, as both men and women can be empathetic, loyal and prioritize the greater good over self.

So do women really have a preference for female leaders, or simply those with certain characteristics that are stereotypically female? Fairygodboss’ recent analysis of women’s workplace leadership preferences reveals that women don’t necessarily prefer a leader simply because she is female. In fact, a plurality (40%) of the women we polled say they don’t think the gender of their bosses matters.

Of course, a plurality is, by definition, less than a full majority. And some women do express a gender preference when it comes to their managers. Comments on our platform about female CEOs give a bit of insight into why. It’s clear some women think female leaders serve as important role models and are living proof of gender equality in their workplaces. For example, one woman’s review of Hewlett-PackardHewlett-Packard companies with a female CEO…there isn’t a glass ceiling.” Another woman at Boston Medical Center remarked, “The hospital is run by a woman CEO, there are more women than men in positions of leadership in my department and there is a great deal of diversity given the environment.”

There are also unfortunate exceptions to the general rule that women will be supportive of other women. For example, there are also women on our platform who make observations such as: “Although we have a woman CEO, there are no women VPs…”, or “You would think having a woman CEO who is a mom would make it a better company for work/life balance but it didn’t.”

Other theories for a gender preference in leadership have been proffered. Some say women may prefer male leaders at work because of the “Queen Bee” scenario (i.e. there’s only room for one woman at the table) while others have rejected that as an overstated myth.

Whatever the explanation, it seems there is little evidence for the idea that women will automatically prefer other women as their leaders. In her piece about the history of the female vote, “The Woman Card: How feminism and antifeminism created Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” Jill Lepore concludes, “It turns out that women don’t form a political constituency any more than men do; like men, women tend to vote with their families and their communities.” The same might also be said of what women want in their leaders in the workplace.

Georgene Huang is CEO and co-founder of Fairygodboss, a career and job community for women, by women.

Source: Forbes

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