Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Should She Lead? Why Colleagues of Women, and Women Themselves, Often Think the Answer is No with Alison Wood Brooks

Should women lead? We here at WAPPP strongly believe yes, but many people, including women themselves, often think the answer is no. This year’s first WAPPP seminar featured Alison Wood Brooks, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Professor Brooks presented results from two published papers regarding perceptions of women in leadership roles and women’s experiences of those roles, as well as two earlier-stage projects.

We know women are underrepresented in leadership positions: less than 15% of executive officers are women, less than 11% of US firms with venture capital backing have been founded or led by women, and less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. To understand why, Professor Brooks examines both demand-side factors (how people perceive and react to women in the workplace) and supply-side factors (how women themselves think and behave in the workplace, including individual differences in personality and preferences).

The Demand Side: How Gender and Attractiveness Affect Entrepreneurial Pitch Success

On the demand side, Professor Brooks presented a study demonstrating that investors prefer entrepreneurial ventures pitched by attractive men. An analysis of the pitches given at the three largest entrepreneurial pitch competitions across the US over three years revealed that male entrepreneurs were 60% more likely than female entrepreneurs to win the competition and earn investor funding. In their study, Professor Brooks and her colleagues asked 521 people to watch two entrepreneurial pitch videos and choose one to invest in, switching whether the video was narrated by a male or a female voice. Sixty-eight percent of participants chose a venture pitched by a male voice, at a very high level of statistical significance, controlling for the pitch itself, the order the pitches were presented, participant gender, and participant age.

However, field data reveals that this effect is not just about gender: attractive male entrepreneurs were statistically significantly more likely to win pitch competitions than less-attractive male entrepreneurs. Interestingly, in the field data, there was no statistically significant impact of attractiveness on female entrepreneurial success. In the next stage of the study, to understand whether attractive people might just be better at pitching, the researchers asked 194 people to watch one pitch video and rate it. The researchers varied whether participants heard a male or female voice, and whether the photo of the narrator they were shown was more or less attractive. Participants were asked how likely they were to invest in the venture and to what extent the pitch was persuasive, fact-based, and logical. Again, attractive male entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to secure investment than less-attractive men, while there was no statistically significant difference for women. However, male-narrated pitches were rated as more persuasive, fact-based, and logical. These findings indicate that male entrepreneurs – especially attractive ones—are more likely to receive investor funding than are female entrepreneurs based on their gender and physical attractiveness rather than the content of their ideas.

Extending the Analysis: Data from Kickstarter

Professor Brooks embarked on a new project to replicate and extend this study using big data from, a large crowdfunding platform. Professor Brooks and her colleagues took a sample of 1,249 projects from Kickstarter that included a picture of a single entrepreneur whose gender could easily be identified. Ten independent judges rated the age and attractiveness of the entrepreneurs in every photo. The researchers used the number of investors as a measure of pitch success and included other available information (including number of days left in the campaign) as control variables. Analysis of the Kickstarter data replicates Professor Brooks’ earlier findings. Male entrepreneurs had about twice as many investors compared to female investors, and for male investors (but not female investors) attractiveness garnered more investors.

Professor Brooks also included two follow-up experiments. The first was designed to test the relationship between entrepreneur gender, entrepreneur attractiveness, and investor gender. The results reveal that male investors are more likely to fund good-looking male and female entrepreneurs, but that female investors are more likely to fund attractive male entrepreneurs and less likely to fund attractive female entrepreneurs. The second experiment was to test to what extend these results are about threat. Are women threatened by attractive women? Are men threatened by successful men? The data bears out this initial hypothesis: women are less likely than men to invest in ventures run by attractive women, but are more likely than men to invest in ventures run by successful men.

The Supply Side: How Do Women Themselves View Professional Advancement?

On the supply side, Professor Brooks presented a study indicating that compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable. When asked to list their core goals in life, female participants listed more goals than men overall, but a smaller proportion of women’s goals were related to achieving power at work. These findings hold when people make their own lists of goals, when they select goals from a pre-determined list, and when they reject goals from a pre-determined list. When asked to what extent they expect certain positive or negative outcomes resulting from a promotion to a higher-power position at work, men and women report equivalent levels of positive reactions to the promotion, but women report stronger negative reactions to the promotion. Men and women rate the promotion as equally attainable, but women rate the promotion as less desirable and, compared to men, are less likely to accept the position. These results are consistent across high-level executives, mid-level managers, recent MBA alumni, and undergraduate students.

Importantly, these findings are descriptive, not prescriptive. It may be that men and women are correctly predicting the unique experiences they will each face in high-power positions; alternatively, women may be overestimating the negative consequences associated with power, men may be underestimating the negative consequences associated with power, or both.

New Areas for Research: Gender, Power, Laughter, and Happiness

In a new project, Professor Brooks is working to investigate the relationships between gender, power, laughter, and happiness. Two sources of data provide converging evidence that men and women might use laughter differently: the U.S. Gallup Poll 2013 and speed-dating conversations. In the Gallup poll, women report laughing and smiling more than men in their daily lives, but also report experiencing more negative emotions (worry, sadness, anger, stress). In the speed dating context, women are more likely to laugh during their dates, regardless of how funny they find their partner. However, female laughter is a worse indicator of interest in a second date compared to male laughter. Said differently, women laugh more often, irrespective of humor, but not in a way that is necessarily connected to interest. As there has been little research done on the supply-side dimension of women’s unique experiences, particularly in leadership roles, this is an area ripe for exploration.

For more on Professor Brooks’ research, check out our Gender Action Portal:

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