Hillary and the Gender Wars

Hillary Clinton's tenacious presidential campaign—holding on after the pundits have declared her finished—has focused attention on the important issue of women and leadership. From her unexpected tears in New Hampshire in February to her expertise on defense to her dogged refusal to cave under pressure, Clinton is challenging old stereotypes and sparking a national conversation on a key question: does gender still matter when it comes to picking the president? The old stereotypes maintain that men favor the hard power of command, while women are more collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction. Most Americans still tend to describe leadership in traditionally male terms. But studies show that successful leadership may now require what was once considered a "feminine" style.

There are numerous reasons for this development. In information-based societies like those we now live in, networks are replacing hierarchies and workers are becoming less deferential to their supervisors. "Shared" and "distributed" organizational models, which place the chief executive at the center of a circle—not on top a hierarchy—are becoming much more common and powerful. The CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, has said that he now has to "coddle" his employees, and even the U.S. military has encouraged its drillmasters to do less shouting because, according to Under Secretary of Defense David Chu, today's generation of recruits respond better to instructors who play "a more counseling-type role." On the battlefield, meanwhile, military success in counterinsurgencies, the prevalent type of warfare, requires soldiers to win hearts and minds, not just break bodies.

President George W. Bush has described himself as "the decider," but there is much more to modern leadership than that. Contemporary leaders need to use networks, to collaborate and to encourage participation in order to succeed. IBM's CEO Samuel Palmisano has argued that a command-and-control style hampers the flow of information needed for the collaborative work of today's multinational corporations.

In the past, to be successful leaders, women had to adopt a stereotypically "masculine" style and to give up on being "nice"—think Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics. But today, with the information revolution and democratization demanding more-participatory leadership, such sacrifices are no longer necessary. Still, as The Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman has pointed out, "While Hillary has been positioned as a tough guy, Obama has become the Oprah candidate. It's easy to talk in a woman's voice if you are a man."

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According to the psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, women still lag in leadership positions, holding only 5 percent of top corporate positions worldwide, and a minority of positions in elected legislatures—ranging from 45 percent in Sweden to 16 percent in the United States. Ludwig also found that of the 1,941 people who ruled independent countries in the 20th century, only 27 of them were women, and half of those came to power as widows or daughters of a male ruler. Less than 1 percent of all the 20th century's rulers were women who gained power on their own. If we are now in fact entering a woman's world, why are females not doing better?

The persistent gender gap can be explained by women's relative lack of experience, their primary caregiver responsibilities, their bargaining style and plain old discrimination. Women's traditional career paths have not allowed them to gain the experience necessary for becoming top leaders in many contexts. Research by Harvard's Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen McGinn shows that even in democratic societies, women still face a higher risk of social criticism than do men when attempting to negotiate for career-related resources such as compensation. Women are generally not well integrated into the male networks that dominate organizations, and gender stereotypes about the expression of emotions still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers. Though they seemed to help Clinton in New Hampshire, tears remain dangerous weapons, whether in the boardroom or on the campaign trail.

As the gradual increase in the number of women in high positions shows, the gender bias is beginning to break down, but it's too soon to suggest we now live in a "woman's world." Even positive stereotypes are bad for women, men and effective leadership. We need to start thinking of our leaders less in heroic terms of command, and more in terms of their encouraging participation throughout organizations, groups, nations or networks. Questions of appropriate style—when to use hard- and soft-power skills—are equally relevant for men and women, and should not be clouded by traditional roles. In some circumstances, men need to act more like "women" and women more like "men." The key will depend not on gender but on how individuals combine hard- and soft-power skills to produce the best outcome.

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Hillary and the Gender Wars | World