The Leadership Lid?

Anna Quindlen recently wrote an article about the leadership lid. Her thesis is that America is making an error in not using her greatest natural resources: women leaders. I found much to agree with in her article, but I also found much I wish to contend. Naturally, the purpose of this blog is to assess her case.

Quindlen begins by addressing one obvious reply to the claim that America is not making use of women leaders: women seem to be doing quite well. In fact, Quindlen has her own regular feature in Newsweek and Sarah Palin is the Republican VP candidate. In reply to this view, Quindlen asserts that she and women like Palin are show ponies who are “trotted out” to send the message that women are doing well. She regards this as a deception.

Second, she addresses three apparent signs that women are doing well: most Americans accept the idea of women leading, leadership positions are open to women and many more women are entering professional fields (and hence will rise to the top over the years). She regards these signs as being deceptive as well.

To back up her claim that these alleged signs are mere deceit, she relies on data from the White House Projects Corporate Council. According to this source, there is a leadership lid: on average, women make up 20% of the leaders in America (political, business, military, etc.). Since women are (about) 51% of the population, this is taken to indicate a problem.

It should be noted that the White House Project is dedicated to advancing women’s leadership. While it would be a fallacy to assert that this makes their claims false, it does provide grounds for being skeptical. After all, any group with an agenda should be subject to an extra degree of scrutiny. I am not asserting that their numbers are mistaken-just that they have a strong potential bias when assembling and assessing data.

Despite this concern, let it be granted that women make up only 20% of the leadership in America. While this might seem problematic, this need not be a matter of concern. After all, if women are freely making life choices that do not lead them to be 50% of the leadership, then there would seem to be no problem to be worried about (unless, of course, you think that women should be choosing to be leaders).

To use an analogy, consider my gaming group. The group is, coincidentally enough, 20% female. However, it should not be inferred that there is any sexism or unfairness involved in this. The group is open to all gamers regardless of gender. However, the fact is that most women do not find such games (like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu) very appealing and hence most women do not play them. Since this is a matter of free choice, there is nothing wrong with the fact that my group is only 20% female. Obviously, if I and the other male gamers took steps to limit the involvement of women simply because they are women, then sexism would be in play.

Quindlen, well aware of this fact, turns to considering the factors that keep women out of the leadership roles. She makes use of an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli. According to them, women face a “labyrinth of leadership full of twists and turns.” Of course, getting into leadership positions is not easy. While most women are not in leadership positions, neither are most men. Naturally enough, the question arises as to whether everyone faces roughly the same labyrinth or whether women are confronted with one that is more dire and difficult than the one between men and leadership positions.

In considering this, Quindlen brings up the stock problems that women face: women are supposed to face more burdens at home and in the family. Of course, this would not apply to single women who do not have children and the same challenges would apply to men who are single parents or have to bear the majority of the burdens in the home. Perhaps it is the case that women still, on average, bear a greater burden than men. If this is the case, then women must accept some of the blame: they are allowing men to put this burden on them. As such, I would suggest to single women that they steer clear of men who will burden them in this manner. Women who are already burdened should do what it takes to get a more equitable division of labor. When I was married and my (now ex) wife was finishing her PhD, I did all the cleaning and housework with the exception of her laundry (I can’t be trusted with complex laundry) and grocery shopping (carnivores cannot be trusted shopping for vegetarians). While I might be unusual, most of my married male friends do a large amount of housework and child care. Hence, it seems evident that men can do their share (and more, in some cases). So, women need to show leadership in getting men to do more.

Quindlen next turns to a standard maneuver in the gender dispute: women are actually better than men, but men somehow twist things so they are in charge. She begins by considering the results of a Pew Research Center survey about leadership traits. Naturally, the survey ranked women higher than men in almost all these traits. Oddly enough, the majority of respondents ranked men and women as equally qualified to lead.

There is a fairly obvious explanation for this disparity-most Americans have been trained to say that men and women are equal. However, Quindlen presents an alternative explanation: men are judged by male standards (control and strength) while female leaders are judged by the male standards and the stereotypical standard applied to women (mostly involving social skills).

Her reply does raise an excellent question: how should potential leaders be judged and selected? Men seem to be better at getting into leadership positions-which might be a sign of leadership. After all, a clear mark of leadership is that people accept you as a leader. Laying that aside, if she is right, should women be judged the same as men by removing that third standard? Or should a different set be selected? If so, should it be based on traits that women are supposed to excel in over men? In short, should the standards be switched from an alleged male biased set to a female biased set? My thought is that we should try to find the qualities that would objectively make for a good leader and use those. Obviously enough, the way leader selection really works would almost always ruin that approach-but starting with high standards means that corruption will drag things a bit less low.

Quindlen then turns to to case of Sarah Palin. While people point to Palin as a sign that women are in positions of leadership, Quindlen takes this as just another piece of evidence that there is a lack of women leaders. Palin, she contends, was simply dragged in “to fill a vacuum for the convenience of men.”

Given her view, it is not clear what would count as evidence that women are moving into positions of leadership. After all, if each example can be dismissed as yet another ploy on the part of the patriarchy, then how can we tell if any improvement is being made?

Quindlen then finishes with another standard argument: if women occupied more positions of leadership, things might be better and perhaps we would not be facing the problems we are facing now. She asks: “if women made up half the leadership of that industry, half the members of Congress, half the overseers in government agencies, might it have ended differently? If women led in proportion to their numbers, would things be better?”

Obviously, she most likely thinks the answer to these questions would be “yes.” Fortunately, these questions can be empirically examined. While women are 20% of the leadership, we can examine the current female leaders and see how they have dealt with problems. If they averaged better than comparable men, then there would be a good case for the superiority of female leadership. On the face of it, the female leaders have not seem to have done a better job on average. For example, Nancy Pelosi has been Speaker of the House and the House has done dismally. As another example, Rice has been Secretary of State and does not seem to have done a superior job. I think the evidence is that women can be just as good and just as bad as men when it comes to leadership. As such, I do not endorse merely getting more women into leadership positions out of a hope that their being women will make things better.

I do, however, agree with her point that excluding women from leadership can be a terrible a waste of talent. If less competent men are occupying leadership positions that could be occupied by more competent women, then things are worse than they should be. Assuming that leadership positions should be assigned based on merit, then this situation would also be morally wrong in that regard as well. In general, we would be better off if the best people were able to become leaders. If competent women are being unfairly kept out of such positions, then action should and must be taken, if only out of the selfish desire to get better leaders working on the problems we face. As such, less competent men should be removed to make way for more competent replacements: male or female.

  1. The NGAC, which is composed of representatives from governmental, private sector, non- profit, and academic organizations, has been established to advise the Chair of the Federal Geographic Data…

  2. “women need to show leadership in getting men to do more.”
    Men can’t ‘do more’ without being told to?

  3. Things That Make You Go Hmmmm « December1975 - pingback on April 7, 2010 at 6:57 am
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