Women in power inspire female leadership

December 29, 2015

Female political icons influence more than policy and public discourse. They have a measurable, positive impact on other women’s leadership skills.


2015 has been a big year for women in politics. Angela Merkel was named TIME’s Person of the Year, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party dominated elections in Myanmar, Canada’s cabinet achieved gender parity, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is off to a strong start. These women shape the political landscapes they inhabit, but they also have a broader social impact. Research conducted by Ioana Latu and her colleagues shows that by serving as role models, they make other women better leaders. We asked her about this research and what it could mean for efforts to promote gender diversity in leadership.

ResearchGate: What inspired you to study how female political leaders influence other women?

Ioana Latu: We were interested in how women react to seeing extremely successful female role models – amazing women who have succeeded in leadership and thereby provide a counterexample to negative gender stereotypes. On one hand, these women can be a wonderful inspiration for others who aspire to be leaders. On the other, women can be “threatened” by such a high level of success and think that they do not possess the necessary qualities to achieve it themselves. Such negative effects were found in research that looked at how women view themselves in leadership contexts. But in our study we wanted to look beyond self-perception at the effects of those role models on women’s actual behavior in leadership scenarios. In other words, do women perform better or worse when exposed to successful female role models?

RG: How did you test the impact female leaders have on women’s behavior?

Latu: We asked women to give a speech – a very typical leadership task. We conducted this experiment in a virtual reality world, meaning that participants were wearing goggles though which a virtual room with an audience of 12 avatars – 6 male and 6 female – was rendered. The virtual room allowed us to standardize the audience and their reactions, and research shows that virtual reality mimics the stress level of giving a speech in front of a real audience.

In this virtual space, we exposed participants to various role models by hanging a portrait on the wall they were facing. We randomly assigned participants to speak either in front of an empty wall, or a portrait of Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton. As a cover story, we told participants that they would be giving a speech in one of the rooms of the university’s political science department, in which rooms are decorated with portraits of famous political figures.

RG: What were the results?

Latu: When exposed to a picture of a male role model or to an empty wall, women tended to give shorter, less empowered speeches compared to men. However, this gender performance gap disappeared when women were exposed to a female role model. Women gave longer and better speeches when speaking in front of a female role model than they did with a male role model or an empty wall. For men, role models did not have an effect on performance. In other words, female role models empowered women’s behavior and reduced the gender performance gap.

RG: Why did you chose Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton as the leaders whose images you displayed?

Latu: This was a difficult question for us, and we spent a lot of time choosing the role models. We pretested people’s opinions and feelings about many politicians and found that for local (Swiss) politicians, participants’ opinions were very polarized depending on their own political preferences. However, foreign politicians were seen a bit more as “icons” – somewhat removed from participants’ own political choices, but nonetheless admired and well-liked role models.

RG: Does it help if women agree with the leader politically, or will any female political role model do?

Latu: We chose leaders that participants generally like and towards which participants feel positively. I think that as long as those female role models are perceived as “icons” – representations of female success in leadership – they can inspire women, because they challenge the negative stereotypes that we have about female leaders.

RG: What are the social implications of your results?  

Latu: We show that women’s advancement has benefits not only in the individual case, but that it can also be an engine for supporting gender diversity more broadly. Having visible female role models inspires women to perform better, changing negative stereotypes that we have about women in the workplace.

Featured image courtesy of US Department of State.

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