Is it time to jettison the alpha male stereotype of leadership?

– by Adi Wiezel & Doug Kenrick

Women make up slightly over 50 percent of the U.S. population. Why then are only a quarter of U.S. Senators and a tenth of Fortune 500 CEOs women? Why have none of 45 American Presidents been a woman? According to some experts on leadership, the explanation involves two steps: first, people’s stereotype of a leader involves masculinity and dominance (the human incarnation of an “Alpha Male” chimpanzee); second, this stereotype translates into a preference. When voters go the polls, or when boards of directors choose executives, the Alpha Male stereotype drives their choices.

But a recently published series of studies suggests that this story is only half true: Most people’s mental image of a leader is a man. But does that mean most people prefer men as leaders? No, in fact, there is a slight preference for women as leaders. This is true whether people are evaluating candidates for a position in a business organization, or for a political office.

More importantly than the slight preference for women, there is a strong bias against leaders who manifest the Alpha Male brand of dominance.

To understand the antipathy towards dominance, it’s important to recognize a distinction between dominance and prestige. In many animal species, positions of status are acquired by aggression and threats, as in the case of Alpha Male chimpanzees. No doubt some of human status is achieved by bullying and threats, with power-hungry individuals fighting to win control over others. But human beings also have another route to status – via prestige. Because human groups involve a great deal of cooperation and mutual problem-solving, people often freely confer status, and leadership positions, on individuals who are especially socially skilled and who can mediate and reduce conflict within and between groups. Unlike dominance, prestige is bestowed by other group members, rather than taken by force. And unlike dominance, prestige is not particularly sex-typed.

In five studies, our research team explored the relationship between leader stereotypes and preferences. In the first study, we found that most people asked to imagine a leader spontaneously thought of a man. This was true whether they were asked to think of a dominant leader (“… has a lot of power and has authority and control over people. People don’t get in this person’s way”) or a prestigious leader (“… has a lot of prestige and has people’s respect and admiration. People seek this person out.”). A follow-up study found this true whether people were prompted to think of a leader in the military, politics, business, sports, science, or the arts.

After imagining a leader, however, people were asked “How much would you like to work for this person?” Did preferences follow stereotypes? No. In fact, there was a slight preference favoring female leaders. More importantly, there was a strong preference to be led by a prestigious rather than a dominant leader. This preference for female over male leaders was corroborated in an analysis of a nationally representative sample from the Pew American Trends Panel.

In another experimental study, people evaluated two candidates for a leadership position in an organization. One leader was described as dominant (forceful, commanding), the other as prestigious (well-respected, looked up to). Sometimes the dominant candidate was a woman and the prestigious candidate was a man, and sometimes the woman was the prestigious candidate. In both cases, people strongly preferred the prestigious over the dominant leader—regardless of whether that person was a woman or a man.

In another study, participants judged actual politicians from facial photographs (European parliamentarians, not known to American participants). People viewed women as more likely to use prestige- over dominance-based leadership strategies, and when asked whether they would vote for this person as governor of their state, showed a slight preference for the women over the men.

But do voters still choose men over women in real elections? No. Analyses of actual U.S. elections confirm that women are (very slightly) favored when they do run for elected office, even at the highest levels. There has only been one instance in which a woman ran against a man for the U.S. presidency, and she earned the majority of the popular vote.

But if people have no prejudice against women leaders, why doesn’t American leadership reflect the fact that half the population is female? The answer is that fewer women tend to run for high office and may be less likely to be chosen by party leaders. Hence, social scientists who persist in promoting the belief that there is a prejudice against females in leadership positions may be unintentionally contributing to the problem. The data suggest it is time to update our models.

This set of studies also raised further questions. Some of these were addressed by seven thoughtful commentaries from prominent scholars in the field, including Alice Eagly and Steven J. Karau, Joey Cheng, Mark van Vugt, Charleen Case and Laurel Detert, Nina Rodriguez and Jaimie Krems, Chris von Rueden, and Patrick Durkee and Aaron Lukaszewski. For example, Case and Detert asked why women were stereotyped as more prestigious than men—is it that men and women vary in their capacity to wield dominance, or that men and women are differentially rewarded for using these two strategies (such that women are more often punished for using dominance)? Moreover, since dominance was less preferred as measured in the present studies, it is worth considering whether this would still be the case for more expanded definitions of dominance. For instance, as Durkee and Lukaszewski suggest, it may be that people dislike dominance when it is used to inflict net costs on the group, but not when it used to provide net benefits to the group. Collectively, commentaries like these suggest the importance of considering further nuance in our models of human leadership. One promising future direction involves considering what ancestral functions leaders may have served, what traits and capacities may have been useful for those roles, and what mismatches we see today.

Read the original article: Wiezel, A., Barlev, M., Martos, C.R., & Kenrick, D.T. (2024). Stereotypes vs. preferences: revisiting the role of alpha males in leadership. Evolution & Human Behavior45(3), 292-308.

Read the commentary articles and authors’ response:

  • Patrick Durkee & Aaron Lukaszewski: Deconstructing “dominance” to refine leadership search (see here)
  • Alice Eagly & Steven Karau: Implications of dominance versus agency in the interpretation of preferences for female and male leaders (see here)
  • Charleen Case & Laurel Detert: Are men (believe to be) less prestige-oriented than women? (see here)
  • Christopher Von Rueden: “Think leader, think alpha male” and the evolution of leader stereotypes (see here)
  • Joey Cheng: Prestige-based leadership offers women leaders an advantage and reduces gender inequality in leadership (see here)
  • Nina Rodriguez & Jaimie Krems: Two notes on Wiezel et al.: explaining why people disfavor dominant leaders and exploring overlooked sources of women’s dominance and leadership (see here)
  • Authors’ response (Adi Wiezel, Michael Barlev & Doug Kenrick): Beyond stereotypes versus preferences: sex, dominance, and the functions of leadership (see here)

Image source (Creative Commons)