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Masculine Traits Are Still Linked to Leadership

When defining an effective leader, traditionally feminine characteristics are considered secondary to attributes like assertiveness.

In the latest attempt to break the ultimate glass ceiling, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have both indicated they may run for president in 2020. Both women come across as strong, sharp, and assertive—qualities typically categorized as masculine.

New research suggests that's a very good thing. It finds both men and women equate strong leadership with attributes typically ascribed to men.

In two studies, "both women and men saw communality as relatively unimportant for successful leadership," write psychologists Andrea Vial of Yale University and Jaime Napier of New York University–Abu Dhabi. Participants approved of qualities like patience, sensitivity, and trustworthiness, but when forced to narrow their choices, these lost out to traits such as confidence, competitiveness, and decisiveness.

These findings "may illuminate the continued scarcity of women at the very top of organizations," the researchers write in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

In the first of two studies, 273 adults recruited online were presented with a list of 30 attributes that are associated with leadership. These included 20 positive traits denoting competence and assertiveness (including confident, ambitious, and self-reliant); 20 positive traits describing a communal approach (such as sincere, tolerant, and cooperative); and 20 negative traits, 10 featuring masculine stereotypes (arrogant, controlling, stubborn) and 10 feminine stereotypes (emotional, weak, yielding).

In the first round, participants were given a "budget" they could "spend" by choosing the traits they considered most important. (For the negative traits, the "money" was used to specify this was a trait they did not want to see in a leader.) In the two subsequent rounds, the "budget" was decreased, meaning the participants were forced to decide which attributes were essential and which were merely valuable.

"When people's budgets were constrained, both men and women were more likely to give up communality in favor of both competence and assertiveness," the researchers report. Communal abilities, they add, were "viewed as more of a luxury"—a finding replicated in the second study.

While male and female participants agreed on those preferences, women were more appreciative of communal attributes, and less tolerant of negative traits usually seen as masculine, such as arrogance. This suggests that, if attitudes toward the "ideal leader" gradually shift, women will be leading the way.

In announcing the findings, Vial noted that they have real-world implications for gender equality in the workplace.

"Our results suggest that the concentration of men in top decision-making roles such as corporate boards and chief executive offices may be self-sustaining," she said. "Men in particular tend to devalue more communal styles of leadership—and men are typically the gatekeepers to top organizational powers of prestige and authority."

No doubt that also applies to male voters, which helps explain why Hillary Clinton—who will always be associated with the communal notion that "it takes a village" to achieve important goals—was rejected in 2016. Perhaps to get into power, a woman needs to emphasize traits that are usually associated with men.

As Margaret Thatcher discovered, it pays to be an Iron Lady.