Women, Leadership, And The Vast Presidential Gender Gap

If only women were to vote today, Barack Obama would win by a landslide. If only men were voting, Romney would take the election easily. What does this tell us about the leadership styles of each candidate?

As I write this, there are less than two weeks left until the presidential election. And, by the way, before I go any further, I do want all readers to know that I’ve voted in many presidential elections (I won’t give away my age, but let’s just say I’ve got enough experience in this area), and, to date, I’ve voted for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans--whichever candidate whose policies I personally felt were right at the time for America and the world.

On a strictly factual basis, however, what’s fascinating to me about this particular race is the incredible gender gap that has developed between the candidates’ constituencies.

The New York Times, in an October 21st article, noted that if only women voted, President Barack Obama would win on November 6th in an “overwhelming landslide.” Florida, Ohio, and Virginia wouldn’t be battleground states, they would be conquered territory. In contrast, if only men voted, President Romney would be sitting in the Oval Office come January, 2013--the margin of his victory would be similar to Ronald Reagan’s over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. If this trend continues all the way to Election Day, the final vote count will reflect one of the biggest gender gaps at the polls since…well, since women fought to have the power to vote.

Some of this is obviously due to political considerations. For example, the Republican party has shown little to no support for women’s issues such as equal pay for women (and why are we still arguing about this in 2012? Equal pay should be a given and a basic right in our society). In the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney’s answer to a direct question about this particular concern was very indirect. He came up with his now-infamous “binders full of women” remark and also remarked, “I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance….said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for--making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.”

What is fascinating is how out of touch this statement is with women today. That’s certainly a nice gesture, but most women can manage their personal lives just fine (and some even have men at home to make dinner!). What we want professionally is the opportunity to achieve real growth and to be in a positive environment where we have the opportunity to demonstrate our own personal leadership skills.

But beyond any specific political issue, I also believe that some of the current gender gap has to do with style of leadership. In a Fast Company post in September, “The Shift From Chief Executive To Chief Influencer,” I noted that leadership styles in business are evolving, and one of the main reasons for that is that women are more and more occupying high-level jobs.

The fact is that women lead differently than men. As Time magazine put it, “women are…less competitive, in a good way. They're consensus builders, conciliators and collaborators, and they employ what is called a transformational leadership style--heavily engaged, motivational, extremely well suited for the emerging, less hierarchical workplace.” And, frankly, we don’t respond as well to someone who doesn’t exhibit those traits.

The Romney campaign seems aware of that fact, and made a concerted effort in the third and final debate to craft their candidate as more of a consensus builder--he ended up agreeing with Obama much of the time on foreign policy. As Bing West, a former Reagan advisor, wrote after that last debate, “Only gradually did it become clear that the Romney strategy was not to fight, but to woo. The difference between the genders in the choice of candidates has been striking, and Romney’s performance would lead no reasonable undecided voter…to worry he was too bellicose.”

This is not to say that women are necessarily better leaders, just different. For example, studies show that men are more confident, decisive, and willing to take more risks. Obviously, the most effective style of leadership would incorporate the best of both gender styles; the problem for women comes when only the “old school” autocratic approach of leadership is exhibited.

I did one final experiment as I worked on this blog post: I Googled the words “Romney bully” and I also Googled “Obama bully.” The results were pretty startling: Obama got 22,600,000 results, Romney had 81,600,000 hits--and just might account for that big gender gap.

A president has to acknowledge that you don’t always have the power to simply point and dictate what others will do, and that you can’t be a “one-trick pony” with only one approach to leadership. The rapidly changing world, the wide variety of issues to be dealt with, and the new generation of Americans all require governance that’s more influential, inspirational, and inclusive--which, again, is more the leadership style of women.

Of course, some of you may think that style of leadership doesn’t really bring about positive results. Well, here are a few statistics I cited in an earlier post that might change your mind about that:

•Female-owned family businesses are over one and a half times more productive than male-owned family firms.
•One in five companies with revenues of a million dollars or more is owned by a woman.
•Almost all income growth in the U.S. over the past 15 to 20 years can be attributed to women increasing their role in business.

When you let us out of our binders, women can make a big difference. And, happily, we already are.

[Image: Flickr user Bill S]

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • David

    Single women overwhelmingly support Obama, not Married women  Married women, who have an intense desire to support their children, chose Romney.

  • Sharon Hadary

    Love this analysis.  Management thought-leaders say women's collaborative, inclusive style is the style of the future -- not only in business, but in political leadership. Just as we tend to promote people we feel comfortable with -- i.e. people who behave like us -- so we tend to vote for leaders we feel comfortable with.    

    Also to add to your proof of the value of women to organizational success -- Pepperdine U. found that companies with more women in leadership were more profitable than those with fewer women leaders; MIT found that groups with more women were more effective and productive in problem solving; and Harvard Business School research found that peers, bosses, and direct reports rated women leaders more favorably than men leaders at all levels of management.  With all this amunition, it is really surprising that corporations don't take sstronger action to put more women insenior  management -- I guess we still want to promote people who look and act like us -- even if it costs us money.