In welcoming the class of 2013, Wharton set yet another record in business education. We now have the highest percentage of female students (45%) among top MBA programs, a testament not only to the work of the admissions office but also to the promise of diversity that Wharton holds. With this milestone behind us, now is a good time to turn our attention to some of the more thorny issues behind gender and business leadership.
When the Wharton Journal asked me to write an article about women’s issues, I initially struggled to pick the most relevant topic. When I asked my friends, a theme emerged: While we talk, read, and think about leadership countless times a day, we seldom acknowledge that our definition of leadership is a masculine one.
Decades of research have shown that from a young age, American men and women are socialized to exhibit “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors and speech*. The problem is that for women, many of the behaviors we learn are precisely the opposite of those that would advance us in the business world. What emerges is a gendered version of leadership that not only hurts men and women but also is more difficult for women to adopt. Here are a few examples:
1. The cult of confidence. Many of us learned from our pre-Wharton industries that success hinges on our ability persuade others, whether or not we actually believe we have the right answer or are the best qualified to give it. The trouble is that boys are taught to be confident and assertive from childhood, while girls are on average** encouraged to display self-doubt and conciliation (for the research behind this statement see Peggy Orenstein’s research on girls and self-esteem). For example, a 2004 study by Brown University and Union College asked respondents accomplished in business, education, law and politics whether they felt they were qualified to run for public office. The study found that men are two thirds more likely than women to evaluate themselves as “qualified” while women are twice as likely as men to evaluate themselves as “not qualified at all.”
The problem goes beyond self-assessment. Women are also more likely to speak, move, and write in ways that are perceived as less confident, whether or not they actually feel that way. In her book, “Talking Nine to Five: Women and Men at Work ” Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen describes how men tend to use conversation to show dominance or to institute hierarchy, using more imperatives, interruptions, and advice than women do, thus communicating an aura of power. Women, on the other hand, tend to use conversation as a method of establishing affinity and so are more likely to reveal weaknesses, offer “proposals” instead of orders, couch statements, and poll their colleagues when formulating a solution. While these tendencies can be extremely useful for building one-on-one professional relationships, they do not project an image of “confidence.” Beyond the issue of whether confidence is over-rated to begin with (I think most of us can agree that a little more self-doubt during the housing bubble would have led to better decision-making), by failing to acknowledge or challenge this bias we are denying the real obstacles women and men will face when they leave Wharton.
2. Mixed messages about emotion. Our first class at Wharton, “Foundations of Teamwork,” teaches us that emotions can be powerful tools for building effective teams. However, I have yet to witness an incident at Wharton where the expression of emotion – whether it occurred during learning team projects, retreats, or club meetings – was considered an exercise of leadership. In fact, many parts of the leadership program implicitly send the message that emotional expression is something to be overcome.
At one point during a particularly taxing leadership venture, a friend of mine began to cry when she noticed her fingernails turn black from the cold. Several months later, when she was turned down for a Venture Fellow position she was told the reason was that she had become emotional and needed encouragement (and so would not be able to provide that level of encouragement to future participants). The message, she recalls, was clear: a “stronger” fellow would have suppressed the urge to cry. Whether or not you believe the expression of emotion in times of stress is a sign of losing control or weakness, it is hard to argue that this model does not promote a masculine version of leadership***.
3. Practicing Empathy. The area where we have the most work cut out for us is embracing the role of empathy in leadership. Why is empathy important to leadership? Because it is the primary skill behind inspiring and motivating others. We need to put ourselves in others’ shoes to understand their internal states and effectively frame, time, and deliver our messages to them.
Empathy is wildly underemphasized at Wharton. Whether we are joking about the welfare moms with whom we ride the bus, telling the Occupy Wall Street protestors to “get a job” or trivializing their message because of their “trustafarian” backgrounds, we consistently fail to take very real power differences and experiences of people outside our circles seriously. By allowing this behavior to continue, we send the message that empathy is not a core component of leadership.
To be clear, I am not arguing that our concept of leadership is wrong or necessarily needs to be changed: I’m arguing that it is biased and should be expanded. I am also not suggesting that our leadership model only hurts women: the unrelenting pressure on men to suppress emotions, reach the top of the social hierarchy, and “provide” at all costs can cause extreme stress and alienation.
Nor am I suggesting that Wharton can realistically and single-handedly change U.S. corporate culture. However, as the most gender diverse MBA program, we owe it to ourselves to better acknowledge and discuss these issues if only to prepare ourselves for the reality of our future careers. Even using the word “gender” can evoke a “PC police” reaction that shuts down critical thinking and conversation before it starts. Admitting social inequities does not require us to change, it frees us to.
*Because Wharton is a U.S. school (and because the author is most familiar with American culture) the research cited in this article is limited to the U.S.
**This article is full of generalizations because in order to talk about any meaningful trend or body of research you must, by definition, generalize. There will always be exceptions.
*** Some scientists argue that because women having larger deep limbic systems and enhanced levels of the hormone oxytocin, they are better able to express their emotions, more prone to emotional stress, and more empathetic (the “nature” argument). Others maintain that this effect is minimal and that higher emotionality and empathy in women is a function of socialization (the “nurture” argument).