In Brief

Even though the glass ceiling has kept women from attaining the same leadership positions as men, men and women have exactly the same leadership abilities, right?

Wrong. Women in management positions are actually better leaders than men in equivalent positions, according to a study in this month's Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 129, No. 3).

The surprising finding comes from a meta-analysis conducted by Northwestern University psychologist Alice Eagly, PhD, and her colleagues Mary Johannesen-Schmidt and Marloes van Engen, PhD.

By statistically combining the results of 45 studies on leaders in business, academics and other areas, they found that women are more likely than men to use leadership styles that have been correlated with higher effectiveness in other studies.

Specifically, women were more likely than men to be "transformational" leaders. In the leadership literature, transformational leaders are defined as those who try to inspire workers and develop their skills and creativity. Other kinds of leaders include transactional leaders, who lead by rewarding and punishing, and laissez-faire leaders, who take a hands-off approach. Previous studies have suggested that transformational leaders create the most productive and satisfying work environments.

In Eagly's study, women also scored higher than men on one measure of transactional leadership--rewarding employees for good performance. That's the only aspect of transactional leadership that has been associated with positive outcomes, says Eagly.

The study has some caveats. First, the difference between men and women in overall transformational leadership was relatively small. That's not too surprising, though, says Eagly. "I wouldn't expect it be big, since these men and women are all in the same role," she explains. "If there's some gendering of behavior, it's mainly in discretionary behavior, around the edges."

Second, the cause of the differences is unclear. It could be that, because of the glass ceiling, women have to be better leaders to make it into management positions, says Eagly. Or it could be that women tend to use transformational styles because other, more forceful styles produce especially negative reactions when used by women.

In any case, says Eagly, the meta-analysis was aimed primarily at stimulating further research and questioning justifications for discrimination against women as leaders.

"There's plenty of evidence--which we presented in a paper in Psychological Review [Vol. 109, No. 3] last year--of prejudice and discriminatory treatment of women in terms of obtaining leadership roles and being evaluated as leaders," says Eagly. "This project is a demonstration that this prejudice is not justified."