Friday, February 15, 2013

Do Female Leaders Mitigate Negative Effects of Diversity? The Case of National Leaders

Many of us are familiar with this scene: the boardroom is transformed from a place of suits and reports to one with mellon balls, cheese plates, colorful paper napkins, and mingling coworkers. Yes, this is your average company party. No, the intention is not to keep you in the office longer or find out who has the strangest sense of humor. Rather, these parties are part of a technique utilized by many organizations to overcome what Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips calls "the negative effects of Diversity 1.0."

Professor Phillips spoke yesterday about reframing our understanding of the challenges diverse groups face, and the leadership styles that could offer more opportunities for group cohesion and success. Diversity 1.0 represents the interpersonal dynamics that sometimes challenge these groups - often experienced as increased emotional conflict, explained in part by similarity attraction. Diversity 2.0 is the effort to understand what is causing the challenges in 1.0 - what are the underlying structural issues, and how can these be ameliorated?

Let's use some buzz words to frame Diversity 2.0: structural inequality, power differentials, status, disenfranchisement, lack of an empowered voice, and, on the national level, "ethnic fractionalization." With all that these words bring up, can you imagine that company parties would meet the level of challenge highly diverse groups face?

Professor Phillips presented her hypothesis that on the national level, female leaders are particularly fit to confront the challenges of Diversity 2.0.  Working with Susan Perkins and Nicholas Pearce, Phillips conducted a nation-wide experiment. The subjects were presented with two different scenarios describing the fictional country Elmoa. Elmoa is either highly diverse, with many different ethnic groups making up the constituency, or has low diversity, with one dominant group making up the significant majority of the population. With very little other information, who do you think should be the next leader: David or Marsha? Who would be the most effective leader? Who will help improve ethnic inequalities?

How do you think the test subjects answered? Interestingly, they chose Marsha as the next leader, who would be the most effective and also improve ethnic inequalities.  This was true for both the highly diverse Elmoa, and the low diversity Elmoa. The key finding is the difference between the two candidates: Marsha would be the most effective leader in either scenario, but only by 10 percentage points in the low diversity Elmoa, and by nearly 60 percentage points in high diversity Elmoa.

Okay, great. So now we know something about how test subjects would vote for and rank hypothetical nondescript candidates in a fictional country; how does this translate into real life?

Professor Phillips and her team did not stop their analysis here. They took their hypothesis to real-world data collected on national female leaders who served from 1950-2004. The good news? The number of female leaders has quadrupled in the last fifty years. The bad news? Female leaders were only 5% of all leaders during this time, and some of these were queens. Phillips removed those with royal regalia from the analysis.

How did these female leaders perform, especially in countries with high diversity and high levels of political and social difficulty? Pretty well, it seems. One way to measure performance is growth in GDP. Running statistical tests, Phillips and her team found that women leaders did indeed have a measurable effect in positively improving GDP growth in highly diverse, difficult-to-manage countries.

Does this mean that you should boycott company parties, believing in their futility, until you get a female CEO? Probably not. Does it mean that highly diverse nations with many social and economic difficulties are destined to struggle more if their leader is a man? Certainly not. These findings offer a beam of light onto the questions of gendered leadership style - actual and perceived - and outcomes. They offer information, and questions to keep the conversation alive and moving.

Valerie Kane is an MPP Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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