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How do you choose a leader (hint: it may not be what you think)

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In 2016, women are less likely to be our leaders in the highest levels of medical education, hospital management and representation of the medical profession. This remains true even at the level of student leadership, despite a little over 50 per cent of medical students being female.

There are many societal reasons why women are underrepresented in leadership roles, such as absorbing a higher load of unpaid domestic work and a paucity of female leaders to model themselves after. There’s also something going wrong with the way that all of us – men and women alike – perceive our female leaders. 

In choosing leaders and in judging their success, we all do our best to make the right decision. But our inherent biases have a nasty habit of getting in the way.

So how does gender impact the people we promote and the leaders we vote for? Research says ‘quite a lot’, and it starts long before we’re reading a person’s CV or hearing their election pitch. In spite of ourselves, the evidence shows that gender colours the way we view our day-to-day interactions.

Some examples? In an election scenario, a recording of a lower-pitched voice is perceived as more competent, stronger and more trustworthy than the same recording digitally manipulated to reflect a higher pitch. As such, the lower-pitched candidate was more likely to be chosen as leader by study participants. Our view of women, who on average have higher-pitched voices than men, is being formed the moment we hear them speak.

There are studies to show that women speak less than men in meetings, but are perceived to speak more. Another study that analysed the talking behaviour of US Senators found that when women did speak more than their share of the conversation, they were rated 14 per cent less competent by observers. Men who spoke more than their share were instead perceived as being 10 per cent more competent. So our female leaders walk the double bind of having less opportunity to demonstrate competency by contributing to discussion and decision, or instead speaking more and being viewed as less competent as a result.

When it comes to nominating for and receiving positions, both men and women are more likely to offer a job to a male candidate than to a female candidate with an identical CV. Additionally, if a fictitious advertisement for a leadership role is given to equally qualified men and women, women perceive themselves to be less suitable for the job than the men perceive themselves to be. So, women are less likely to put themselves forward for a leadership position than men, and we’re all less likely to believe a women who does put herself forward should be given the role.

However, many of these effects can be reversed where an effort is made to do so. For example, the same study that identified a gender disparity in the amount of time speaking at meetings also found that when a decision was being made by unanimous vote rather than majority rule the effect disappeared, and female voices were equally heard. Additionally, while research shows that the characteristics typically associated with leadership are stereotypically masculine, it also shows that this effect is decreasing over time, and suggests flatter organisational hierarchies which promote teamwork and interaction as the cause.

When we find ourselves forming an opinion about a male leader, or a female one, we owe it to them to think about why. To reflect on which judgements are valid, and which are instead the result of seeing a majority of leaders look a particular type of way. Only once we’ve understood our biases can we set about changing them.

All of us are responsible for the promotion and election of our leaders; within medical education, within hospital management, and as our professions’ representatives. And we need to get those decisions right.