Gender Differences at Work
Alice Eagly was a feminist scholar before the field existed. She received her bachelor’s in social psychology from Harvard and her Ph. D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan in 1965. Studying cultural attitudes and social influence put her in a great position to study the important questions that came up during the women’s movement and second-wave feminism, some of which are still being asked today. Dr. Eagly currently works as a professor of psychology and of management and organizations at Northwestern University, furthering the academic conversation on women in leadership.
Gender Roles: Nature or Nurture?
One of Dr. Eagly’s landmark concepts, Social Role Theory puts an emphasis on the way society is organized, or the division of labor: what men and women do and how it shapes our thinking, behavior and everything around us. It asks to what extent these roles and behaviors built in through evolution, and to what extent they are learned because of what we’ve observed from previous generations.
Social Role Theory puts an emphasis on the way society is organized, or the division of labor: what men and women do and how it shapes our thinking, behavior and everything around us.
The themes at the core of these stereotypes are that women are better suited to communal roles, whereas men are more agentic. Women put others first and want to serve, help, nurture, while men are driven to get ahead, be assertive, goal-oriented and even aggressive. It affects the way the sexes socialize: women try to create a community, but men look for allies.
With the tremendous amount of social change that has transpired since she started studying this, Dr. Eagly has had to refine and sharpen her theories. Women made their way into the labor force and now occupy over 50% of it; however, segregation persisted according to the same stereotypes. Women became gynecologists and pediatricians while men remained surgeons and general practitioners. Men still dominate at the high level of corporate and political leadership, among other things, but there has been slow and steady change.
One prime example Dr. Eagly notes is the New York Times endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the 2020 Presidential election. There’s value in seeing multiple women approaching the same leadership role in a range of different ways.
Is Leadership a Gendered Role?
Role Congruity Theory works within Social Role Theory, recognizing that while we all have a gender, we may occupy roles that don’t align with that primary gender. It gets complicated when women take on agentic roles; when this happens, we’re expected to exhibit both communal and agentic behaviors, or act like a woman stepping into a man’s role. Women who are too competitive and aggressive are rejected. But theorists ask, do we need to think of leadership that way, just for tough, agentic types? They are starting to think it requires more social skills.
With her colleague Linda L. Carli, Dr. Eagly created a metaphor to explore how leadership is more difficult for women than it appears. Their book Through the Labyrinth shows that leadership is more like a series of puzzles and problems than a straight road (or a “glass ceiling,”) and women need to be skilled to manage this. It’s simpler for men because both male and leadership roles are agentic; they can be themselves. Women often want to express their communal role in leadership positions, but it’s more complex and challenging.
However, Dr. Eagly has confirmed that women can enact leadership in a more paticipatory way, in a meta-analysis where she gathered many studies to look at overall patterns. They do it by allying themselves with others instead of just telling them what to do in a top-down leadership style, and it can be more successful than traditional, agentic leadership.
Dr. Eagly highlighted Nancy Pelosi’s press conference on the impeachment; when interviewers kept asking “what are you going to do?” she kept answering that “We,” the House of Representatives, “will make a decision together.”
What Can We Do?
So what can we do as women driven to begin successful careers, own businesses, lead and go where other women have still yet to go? Clearly we can’t just do what men do. Dr. Eagly advises that we must continue to study this topic, and those in leadership roles can realize their task is somewhat different than men’s and continue to think about how and why they define that role for themselves. Women can successfully navigate role incongruity and The Labyrinth by leading in a more participative fashion. And if we want to get married, find a partner who’s a “real partner,” who will share the domestic workload.
Men can speak up on women’s’ behalf by sponsoring women outside their networks, advocating to hire more women, and providing mentorship and advice.
Dr. Eagly defines feminism as a commitment to furthering equality between men and women, in terms of equal access to power and resources. She believes gender equality is consistent with American values, even though many see it as a zero-sum game: it’s true that more women congress members means fewer men, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad goal.
Listen to the full interview with Dr. Eagly on the Victorization podcast.