Female leadership in economic and social contexts is a rather rare phenomenon. Could this be because women have weaker abilities or attitudes to lead a team or an organization? Or are women, despite considerable changes in gender roles, still vulnerable to becoming targets of prejudice?
To answer this question, Maria De Paola, Francesca Gioia and Vincenzo Scoppa ran a field experiment with 430 students from an Italian university who volunteered to have a part of their exam evaluated on the basis of teamwork. The students were randomly assigned to teams of three members, one of which was randomly selected as a leader to organize team activities.
Women perform better under female leaders
Controlling for a number of individual characteristics, the researchers find that female-led teams perform significantly better than male-led teams. The effect is mainly driven by the better performance of team members, with female members reacting more to female leadership. Women tend to perform worse individually if they are in a leadership role, which suggests that female leaders altruistically devote more energy to organizing team activities, rather than improving their own performance.
The authors conclude that “stereotypically feminine qualities” like cooperation, mentoring, and collaboration seem important to leadership, certainly in contexts like this and perhaps increasingly in contemporary organizations. Women’s advantage may come from differences along the discretionary dimensions of leadership behavior, for example paying more attention to subordinates, helping others with their work or volunteering for tasks that go beyond their role.
Men give worse evaluations to female leaders
From a post-experiment survey, the authors find that teams led by men and women spend on average the same amount of time together, which implies that female-led teams are more effective. Nonetheless, men tend to give female leaders worse evaluations, which may be the result of male stereotypes against female leadership, especially considering the better performance of female-led teams.
Finally, when analyzing leaders’ evaluation of their role and of the team, the study finds that female leaders are not aware of their effectiveness in coordinating and finalizing the work of their team. But they are aware of the effort they have provided in accomplishing their role, and they evaluate their team members’ effort as less intense compared to male leaders.
Leadership advantage depends on the context
Overall, the findings suggest that women have a leadership advantage in some contexts and should be encouraged to take on leadership roles because they tend to work harder and their team might benefit more from their guidance. The study also confirms that women still face some difficulties in having their merits recognized, especially in male-dominated teams.
The authors stress, however, that their results pertain to a specific domain of leader activity. In other contexts, effective leadership may require more “masculine” qualities, such as the execution of authority, self-confidence, or power.