Ask a man how effective a leader he is, and he's likely to rate himself higher than a female manager posed the same question.
His staff might tell a different story.
According to a new study, when it comes to leadership, as rated by the people who work with them, women almost always get higher marks - in both middle and senior-level management.
Even in male-dominated fields such as politics and military, female leaders were perceived as equally effective as men.
That colleagues find women to be better managers not only debunks the traditional gender stereotypes around leadership, but it's an interesting finding given recent debate over the confidence gap - the evidence that women, despite high qualifications and job performance, tend to see themselves as less successful, and are less likely to ask for raises and promotions.
"Women are typically described and expected to be more communal, relations-oriented and nurturing than men, whereas men are believed and expected to be more agentic, assertive and independent than women," write the authors of the meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which looked at data from dozens of studies going back nearly 50 years.
But as workplaces became more fast-paced and diverse, the authors theorize, it may be that "a more feminine style of leadership is needed to emphasize the participative and open communication needed for success," thus giving women an edge with their co-workers.
If so, that edge has yet to translate into rewards commensurate with ability. As the authors point out in their introduction, men continue to receive higher salaries, while advancing faster into managerial positions. According to 2012 data, less than four per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs and the chairs of boards among the largest European companies are women. In Canadian federal and provincial politics, men still outnumber women roughly four to one.
To test their theory, researchers analyzed 99 different data sets, with sample sizes ranging from 10 to more than 60,000 leaders, from 58 journal publications, 30 unpublished dissertations, and a dozen books and other sources. The studies, the vast majority from the United States and Canada, were published between 1962 and 2011. Researchers found that female leaders were perceived as less effective in a few older studies, though the difference was slight. There was no difference between how male and female employees perceived leaders by gender.
In self-reports, male leaders consistently gave themselves better ratings than their female peers. But that didn't jive with the scores from others, who tended to perceive women as more effective. The gap, statistically significant though not huge, was nonetheless wider in business and education settings.
"For all leaders self-awareness is really important," says lead author Samantha Paustian-Underdahl, an assistant professor of management at Florida International University. This is why, she suggests, conducting 360-degree performance reviews for management, in which evaluations from colleagues and staff are compiled, is valuable to companies. "Hopefully, when women see the data, it will help them step up to the plate with more confidence. On the flip side, men [might] say, 'Well darn, maybe I am not as good as I thought, what can I do to improve?'"
The studies only assessed "perceptions" of leadership skills, not actual performance – although certainly the two are linked. The authors theorize that one factor influencing their findings may be that, especially in senior-management, women benefit a "double standard of competency theory" – that they are assumed to be extra talented to rise to these positions.
Paustian-Underdahl says the study is not "good news," even if it reveals positive perceptions of female leadership not always reflected in larger society. "In an ideal world, someone's sex wouldn't be related to their effectiveness as a leader."