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When Do We Prefer Male Over Female Leaders?

Some important situations point us away from female leadership.

My daughter needs a Black Belt, and not just to fend off handsy young men. She needs this martial arts ornamentation because I really want to live in the White House someday. My wife and I are both academics, so the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a little steep for us. But my daughter could do it. She’s amazing and smart and often gets leadership positions in groups she’s in, but there is a problem.

In my previous post ("Where Are the Female Candidates?") I presented a great deal of historic and modern-day evidence that men hold a substantial advantage over women in obtaining executive leadership positions in government as well as business. For instance, only five of the 209 Egyptian pharaohs in the 3,000 years of pharaohs (3100 BCE - 30 BCE) were female, while only four of the 187 Roman emperors in the 1,500 years of Roman emperors (30 BCE - 1453 CE) were female. Similarly, there were only a handful of female empresses in the 21 centuries of Imperial China (221 BCE - 1912 CE), and there have been only 10 empresses in the 26 centuries of Imperial Japan (660 BCE - present).

This is not only a phenomenon of the past, either. For example, in 2008, only 7% of government leaders worldwide in an executive position were female and in none of the major national business indices did female chief executive officers (CEOs) exceed 6% (Canada’s Financial Post 500). And, of course, there’s never been a female president of the United States.

Here's where the Black Belt comes in

I present one explanation for this statistically surprising pattern in my previous research. It suggests there is a preference for formidable leaders that reflects a psychological mechanism that evolved to promote survivability in the violent environment of ancestral humans ("Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?"). Our ancestors who selected allies who were physically imposing were more likely to survive and reproduce. This is because potential opponents easily noticed the physical formidability of the ally and realized the increased costs and danger of a physical confrontation.

The preference for physically formidable leaders may help explain the nearly universal advantage that men, who throughout human history have been larger and stronger, hold over women in the acquisition of executive leadership power. This preference for physically formidable leaders also explains why my daughter needs a Black Belt for me to achieve my White House dreams.

What does research show?

This formidability argument fits nicely with findings in current research. First, in social interactions, people establish social hierarchies quickly, often based on “first-glance impressions” occurring prior to any verbal interaction. In particular, we humans are surprisingly good at assessing a person’s physical formidability in terms of strength and fighting skills.

Second, people tend to prefer more dominant leaders when the threat is greater. This is consistent with research showing that individuals with greater physical stature are more likely to be perceived as capable and competent. It also jibes with findings that individuals with greater physical stature are more likely to be respected and feared by potential opponents.

Further, people tend to prefer individuals with greater physical stature as economic and political allies and, therefore, as group leaders ("Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?"). These behaviors are consistent with research showing that the social rank of chimpanzees and other primates often depends on the social rank of their allies. This concept of dependent rank suggests that individuals know who a powerful ally will support in a conflict and the likely outcome of the conflict, so the powerful ally’s presence sends a cue to his or her associate’s opponent to submit to the associate before the conflict starts.

Third, archeological evidence suggests that males have been physically larger and stronger than females in all human hominid ancestors dating back 3-4 million years.

Fourth, and finally, research indicates that males are preferred over females during between-group competition and that males are more effective at increasing group effort than females during this type of competition. Of course, this fits with evidence that throughout history males have been more likely to serve as combatants in wars and other intergroup conflict than females.

Testing the explanation

To see if this argument passes muster, my co-author and I conducted a number of experiments then reported the results in a chapter in Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, a 2011 book edited by fellow Psychology Today blogger Gad Saad ("Homo Consumericus"). In its simplest form as derived from the research discussed above, we expected that external threat triggers a preference for a male versus female leader.

In the first experiment, we tested the difference in support of citizens for a hypothetical female versus male candidate for the U.S. Senate when the country’s economy was “weak” (threat) versus “strong.” In the second experiment, we assessed the preference of employees for the hiring of a hypothetical female versus male CEO of a company when the company was “fearing bankruptcy” (threat) versus “expecting continued profitability.” And in the final experiment, we measured the difference in the preference of citizens for a hypothetical female versus male “national leader, such as a president or prime minister,” when a country is experiencing “a time of war” (threat) versus “a time of peace.”

In each experiment, we found that threat increased the preference for a male leader over a female leader. In Experiment 1, when the economy was portrayed as “weak,” support for the male candidate was 16% greater than support for the female candidate despite the candidates having otherwise identical characteristics. In Experiment 2, preference for a male CEO increased from 79% to 88% of subjects when the company moved from expected profitability to feared bankruptcy. And in Experiment 3, preference for a male national leader increased from 83% to 94% of subjects when the country went from a condition of peace to a condition of war. To round out the details, I will note that subjects preferred a female over a male leader in only one instance (Experiment 1 under the condition of a strong economy), but I will leave it up to you to determine if the 3% difference is important. And in case you're wondering, there were no important differences between men and women in their preferences.

These results suggest the preference for male executive leadership is particularly related to the existence of an external threat. Although there is a lot of evidence of a general preference for male leaders in both human and non-human groups, these experiments indicate the preference may be associated with perceptions of danger toward group survival. If so, substantially reducing or eliminating the bias against female leadership may prove to be very difficult.

Ultimately, the most fundamental obligation of our executive leaders is to ensure our survival in a competitive if not hostile world, whether we are talking about a nation of citizens or a company of employees. If we continue to charge our leaders with this responsibility, the evolutionary baggage we carry (e.g., sexual dimorphism and formidability in leadership preferences) may make this strange phenomenon frustratingly difficult to end.

Alright, sweetie, Obama and Romney are working hard to achieve political dreams. It’s time for you to get to the dojo to break some boards and twist a few arms. You gotta get that Black Belt to wear around to intimidate people. Dad wants to take up residence in the Lincoln Bedroom.


For more information: 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.