Here we go again. It’s time to elect our president and a number of governors, and at this time we have no female candidates on the ballot in November. There are 11 state gubernatorial races this year. In the nine races where the Democratic and Republican candidates have been selected, there are no females. And it’s very likely the remaining four candidates will be male as well. And, of course, the 2012 presidential primaries have yielded another “Mr. President,” too.
In a previous post I presented research showing we have a preference for more physically formidable leaders ("Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?"). This raises questions about the effects of gender given the obvious differences in physical stature between men and women (i.e., men are about 8 percent taller, 15 percent heavier, and have about 60 percent more muscle mass and 50-100 percent more upper-body strength). Does this preference for greater physical stature mean we prefer male over female leaders?
There is a lot of evidence suggesting that is the case. Females are highly unlikely to head large companies or hold chief executive power in government. In 2008, for instance, only 6 percent of Canada’s Financial Post 500 largest companies were headed by female chief executive officers (CEOs), which represented the largest proportion of female CEOs among a number of the major national business indices. Similarly, only 7 percent of government leaders worldwide in an executive position were female (e.g., Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and German Chancellor Angela Merkel).
In Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, a book edited by fellow Psychology Today blogger Gad Saad ("Homo Consumericus"), my co-author and I argue that environmental-cultural explanations such as socialization and organizational culture offer incomplete explanations for the male advantage in executive leadership.
My previous research suggests there is a preference for formidable leaders, and this preference may reflect a psychological mechanism that evolved to promote survivability in the violent ancestral history of humans ("Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders" and "Are You Sure We Prefer Taller Leaders?"). Ancestors who selected allies who were physically formidable, a cue that was easily available about individuals in ancestral times and still is today, were more likely to survive and reproduce. This is because potential opponents received a cue about the likely high costs of a physical confrontation, which was common in ancestral times. The preference for physically formidable leaders may help explain the nearly universal advantage that men, who throughout human history have tended to be larger and stronger, have held over women in the acquisition of executive leadership power.
There is a vast body of research that suggests males hold a nearly universal advantage over females in obtaining executive leadership. Studies from a number of disciplines show that the likelihood of rising to positions of power is strongly related to biological sex. Research in non-human animal behavior shows such a relationship. Although a small number of non-human animal groups tend to be female-led (e.g., African elephants, spotted hyenas, lemurs, and bonobos), males dominate females nearly universally in primate and mammal groups. Male dominance has been documented in a wide range of non-human animals from chimpanzees and gorillas to feral horses, wolves, and even coral-reef fish.
Anthropological and archaeological evidence indicates that human males have dominated in the public sphere dating back at least to pre-Columbian times. The table reports the percent of female leaders across a wide variety of human cultures, both ancient and modern.
It shows, for instance, that only five of the 209 Egyptian pharaohs in the 3,000 years from 3100 BCE to 30 BCE were female, while only four of the 187 Roman emperors between 30 BCE and 1453 CE were female. Asian civilizations have been predominantly patriarchal, as indicated by the few female empresses in the 21 centuries of Imperial China (221 BCE to 1912 CE) and 10 empresses in the 26 centuries of Imperial Japan (660 BCE to present). Historic Europe has also manifested a male-dominated culture, for example, through the monarchies of Belgium, England, France, and Spain. In terms of religion, none of the 302 popes has been female (40 CE to present), and Islam has been found to be just as male-dominated as Christianity.
The relationship between leadership and biological sex is well documented in modern times, too. For instance, females are unlikely to appear in executive leadership positions in business. Although the number of female executive leaders has increased over previous decades, the table shows that in 2008 only 4 percent of South Africa’s 400 JSE-listed companies and 2 percent of Australia’s ASX 200 companies were headed by a female CEO. In the same year, only 2 percent of the Global Fortune 500, U.S. Fortune 500, and Europe’s FTSE 300 were headed by a female CEO.
Females are also unlikely to obtain executive leadership positions in the government. Only 1 percent of all government national leaders worldwide with chief executive power in the 20th century were female. Similarly, but focusing instead on duration in office, females have held executive government positions just 2 percent of the time since World War II.
Cross-culturally, of the 13 geographic regions reported in the table, only Central Asia reached 5 percent female national leaders in the 20th century. Even in the “least masculine” countries females are highly unlikely to serve as head of state or government. For example, in the 10 “least masculine” countries in a study of 50 countries, only 3 percent of national government executive leaders since World War II have been female, despite a mean year of achievement of women’s suffrage in those countries of 1923. Similarly, in the 11 societies with the “greatest gender egalitarianism” (i.e., lowest level of male dominance) in another study of 62 countries, only 1 percent of national government executive leaders since World War II have been female.
It’s important to note that appearance of the male executive leadership advantage in diverse social contexts, including both human and non-human animals, challenges environmental-cultural explanations and is consistent with an evolutionary explanation. Proponents of cultural explanations would need to show how this advantage manifested in modern humans could result from such diverse social contexts as those experienced in 3000 years of ancient Egypt and 21 centuries of Imperial China as well as in the preponderance of non-human animals such as chimpanzees, feral horses, and coral-reef fish.
In my next post I’m going to report the results of some very interesting experiments that explain more about the male advantage in obtaining executive leadership.
For more information, see: Murray, Gregg R., & Susan M. Murray. 2011. “Caveman Executive Leadership: Evolved Leadership Preferences and Biological Sex.” In Gad Saad (ed.), Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences (pp. 135-164). Heidelberg: Springer.