Are women too emotional to be effective leaders?

by Quinn O'Neill

6a01156f4da159970b01a51192c59f970c-300wiIt is a widely held view that women are more emotional than men, and some argue that this makes them unsuitable for positions that demand important, cool-headed decision making. The argument often rears its head in discussions about women in politics – particularly as prospective presidents – and I've heard it asserted by both males and females.

The claim that women are more emotional should immediately raise the question of what we mean by emotional. Perhaps we're referring to the intensity at which one experiences an emotion. It's quite possible that women do feel emotion more intensely but this would be difficult to establish with certainty. Emotions are subjective in nature, as are individuals' ratings of the their intensity. Would two people experiencing the same emotion at the same intensity necessarily rate it similarly? It's hard to say.

Alternatively, we might equate emotionality with emotional demonstrativeness. In this sense, a person crying at a sad movie would be deemed more emotional than his or her dry-eyed companion, even if both are feeling equally sad. In this context, one might guess that women are indeed more emotional than men. It seems to me, at least, that they are more likely to cry when watching a sad movie, and more likely to cry in public for other reasons as well. It's important to consider, however, that social norms and expectations differ for men and women when it comes to crying, with it generally being more acceptable for females. If crying were equally acceptable for both sexes, would women still cry more often? Maybe. Maybe not.

It may also be the case that media portrayals of men and women distort our views on gender and crying. In the political domain, Hillary Clinton's tears seemed to garner a lot more media attention – particularly of the negative variety – than those of George Bush junior or senior, Barack Obama, or” target=”_self” title=”Joe Biden”>Joe Biden. Jessica Wakeman, writing for FAIR, detailed the sexist media portrayal of Clinton's emotional display.

Whether we equate emotionality with the intensity of the experience or with demonstrativeness, there's a wide array of emotions to consider aside from sadness. What about anger? When angry, which sex is more likely to punch walls or other people? The vast majority of violent crime is committed by men, and while all incidents may not result from emotions getting the upper hand, I'd guess that a large proportion does. Violent crime certainly isn't the result of the kind of rational, level-headed decision-making we expect of good leaders.

And what about other emotions, like happiness, jealousy, fear, sadness, disgust, and shame? If we're going to make a blanket statement like “women are more emotional than men” or “women are too emotional to lead”, should we not consider these too? By “emotional”, are we referring to all emotions or just to some? Are women too happy to lead? Too prone to disgust? Too fearful?

It isn't really clear how the intensity of emotional experience or emotional demonstrativeness might impair leadership. What might be problematic, however, is a tendency to let one's emotions influence decision-making. This doesn't mean, of course, that there's no place for empathy and consideration of others' feelings when making important decisions, but that the decisions should be made carefully, in a well-reasoned manner, and with consideration of all of the facts at hand. We might ask then, which gender is more likely to allow emotion to cloud judgement and to influence behavior? Gender differences in this respect are similarly difficult to assess.

Violent and destructive responses to anger would seem more suggestive of unsuitability for leadership than crying at a sad movie, but I wouldn't argue on this basis for exclusive leadership by one sex. There are too many emotions to consider, too many different contexts with different gender norms and expectations, and too much variability among individuals of a given gender.

Even if we define emotionality as a tendency to allow emotion to influence judgment, it's only one of many factors we might consider in suitability for leadership, and arguably not one of the more important ones. Leadership itself is complex, and comes in a variety of styles. Forbes outlined 10 specific qualities that make a great leader: honesty, ability to delegate, communication, sense of humor, confidence, commitment, and ability to inspire. A CNN piece offered 23, including focus, respect, passion, persuasion abilities, compassion, and integrity, among others. None of these qualities require that one refrain from feeling or showing emotion. In fact, some might benefit from greater emotional savvy. Communication, passion, persuasiveness, and compassion, for example, would be enhanced by an ability to understand and engage others emotionally. So, depending on how we define emotionality, it could be an asset in leadership.

Many of these attributes are relatively rare, and rarer still in combination. Take communication, for example. Most of us can communicate basic ideas and information in everyday settings, but the ability to speak effectively in front of large audiences in high pressure circumstances is much less common. To speak confidently and passionately and persuasively and inspirationally in front of thousands of people is a rarer skill set still, and it doesn't come as a package deal with a Y chromosome and a penis. An array of attributes suitable for effective leadership occurs in a minority of members of any gender.

Emotionality aside, evidence abounds that women can be effective leaders. In their ranking of the world's 50 greatest leaders, Fortune included quite a few females, like Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Christine Lagarde, Maria Klawe, Mary Robinson, Ellen Kullman, Susan Wojcicki, Arati Prabhakar, Juliana Rotich, and Gail Kelly. Some women, at least, can be effective leaders.

A study recently published in the Journal of International Affairs suggested that female leadership may be advantageous in some conditions. The authors found that, in ethnically diverse countries, female leaders outperform their male counterparts in growing the gross domestic product, a measure of national economic progress. On average, having a female leader was associated with a 6% higher GDP growth rate than having a male leader.

A separate study described at the” target=”_self” title=”study”>Harvard Business Review and MIT News found that teams perform better when they include more women. Author Thomas Malone commented: “The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.” Coauthor Anita Woolley added, “We have early evidence that performance may flatten out at the extreme end—that there should be a little gender diversity rather than all women.”

Not only is female gender not incompatible with effective leadership, it appears that female representation may be advantageous. It should concern us then that Western countries have relatively low female representation in government. Out of 189 countries, the US ranks 83rd, with women comprising less than 20% of government. The UK is ranked 64th and Canada is 54th. Myths and stereotypes about females in leadership may contribute to this imbalanced representation and prevent government from functioning optimally.

The claim that women are too emotional to be effective leaders is beyond absurd when we consider the vast array of human emotions and gender-specific social norms that dictate how we express them, the multitude of qualities of effective leaders, the variation among individuals within a single gender, and the abundance of evidence for the ability of women to lead effectively. It is a worse-than-baseless generalization that may ultimately handicap our leadership. Such claims should make us angry – and not because we're “emotional” or because we belong to a particular gender, but because we're informed, thinking people who care about our country's future.