A Bright Horizon for Women Leaders

Will the advances that women have been experiencing continue? Some signs suggest they will.

In addition to the increased numbers of women leaders in education, business, politics and other fields, change is also evident in attitudes about women and leadership. When asked whether they would prefer to work for a man or woman or have no preference, most people today are more inclined to say “no preference,” whereas in the past the majority indicated a preference for a male boss. Gallup polls also show more favorable attitudes toward women leaders in politics. Specifically, more people than ever, more than 90 percent, say they would vote for a qualified woman for president.

In addition, attitudes toward women leaders in general have become increasingly positive over time. Furthermore, the more people see women in visible and important leadership positions, the more they shift their attitudes to see women as more agentic and able to lead. So the increasing presence of prominent women leaders in politics and elsewhere should weaken gender stereotypes in the future and reduce resistance to women’s leadership.

Attitudes about the relative importance of family and career also are changing, as is evident in the current endorsement of intensive parenting. Both men and women have become more family-focused. On one hand, this presents a challenge for women, who have more domestic responsibilities than men and have taken on more duties as “intense” parents. But this also presents an opportunity.

Men’s commitment to family has particularly increased, and this commitment has grown with each succeeding generation, so that more men than ever would now consider staying home rather than having a job. At the same time, women have changed. Women’s personalities have become more assertive, dominant and masculine, and their career preferences have changed, too. Women now are much more like men in their desire for authority and leadership than in the past.

Research shows that people are more inclined to desire opportunity when they have a realistic chance of attaining it. And women’s desire for leadership strengthens the more they encounter other women in leadership positions. So as leadership opportunities open up for women and as more women become prominent leaders, women are likely to aspire even more to become leaders.

— Alice Eagly and Linda Carli