An article in slate.com this morning ruminates on the potential implications for women’s leadership if Hillary Clinton succeeds in her quest for the presidency. Specifically, the article (entitled, in Slate’s loquaciously satiric fashion, “It Takes A Village…To Fail To Thank Its Female Leader No Matter How Good She Is”)discusses research on village councils in India that reveals that in places where women become civic leaders, the amount and quality of services to citizens improve, but the ratings of the leaders go down.
The question that emerges from this study is whether women leaders have a harder time being accepted/appreciated because of gender. The article goes on to discuss a different study at Harvard Business School in which, given the same fact pattern about a corporate CEO except that some students got a fact pattern with “Howard” as the CEO and some students had a CEO named “Heidi,” with both being equally competent, the researchers (Anderson and Flynn) found that “…students described the female version of the character as overly aggressive, and were much less likely to want to work with or hire her. So the decisive, assertive traits that are often valued in leaders are received very differently when observed in women than when seen in men. Howard was a go-getter. Heidi was unlikably power-hungry.”
Do women leaders have a harder time winning respect and acceptance? Research like the Harvard case study and the Indian village poll results is interesting. And, from my own long experience and many conversations over the years with other women who are university presidents and corporate CEO’s, I know that we all sometimes encounter situations where gender becomes an overt barrier. Earlier in my career, I actually had male college presidents take me aside and counsel me to be more quiet in meetings, to be careful not to make my presence felt too much. I ignored that “brotherly” advice! But I’ve also had some women insinuate similar views, though not as directly. I’ve often said that as women move up the corporate ladder, we can see the glass ceiling even more clearly, and actually sometimes see what’s happening on the other side. We’re sometimes even surprised to see women on the other side of the glass ceiling putting reinforcements in place against our efforts to shatter the glass — gender discrimination is not always just a male versus female problem. See how Hillary fares in some polls among women.
But let’s not overplay the reality. Yes, women leaders are still a relatively new phenomenon in too many places. At the same time, the more progress we make, the closer we get to the broad acceptance of women leaders — in the boardroom, the executive suite, even in the Oval Office.
We will be studied for generations to come, and we will certainly find gender differences and conflicts along the way. We must not let the research and findings be barriers to our progress, but rather, challenges to inspire even greater efforts to make permanent change in the ability of every woman to achieve whatever position she can reach on her own merits.
This is why it’s so important that the “Hillary” debates stay focused on substance, not gender. Women’s progress depends on our talent and competence, not on any sympathy or affinity vote. Let’s prove what we can do — and let’s accept the consequences of being leaders without complaint. The more progress we make, the more fire we may draw. That’s the price we pay for being leaders, but the results are more than worth the effort.