There are not many differences between male and female leaders, and those differences that do exist are not great. But there are some, and sometimes they matter. Similarly, there are differences in how people perceive male and female leaders – and in how they prefer them.
In general, the traits that we attribute to leaders are those stereotypically viewed as masculine: dominance, assertiveness, task-orientation, and risk-taking. Women, in contrast, are thought more collaborative and cooperative, more cautious and careful, more honest and ethical. For example, in 2015 the Pew Research Center reported that 29% of Americans associated honesty more with women, while only 3% associated honesty more with men.
In part because of these perceived differences, men and women in leadership roles adjust accordingly. Women leaders have, for example, learned that if they are seen as too dominant, they will be disliked. So, they tone down their assertiveness, lest it be viewed as aggressiveness. Similarly, if conversely, female political leaders tend to play up their interest in matters of national security, for fear of being seen as weak on defense.
Men have some of the same issues. They are not immune from gender stereotyping, including associating their own leadership prowess with their own unflagging masculinity. No leader in 21st century America exemplifies this proclivity more than President Donald Trump. We were forewarned even during the presidential campaign. When he belittled his various rivals not by challenging them on their policy positions, but by challenging them on their masculinity, we saw what was in store. Jeb Bush was derided for being “low energy.” Rick Perry was belittled for insufficient “toughness.” And Marco Rubio was emasculated, nearly literally, by being tagged “Little Marco.”
Trump’s mind-set was, then, clear early on. A real leader is a man. And a real man is a he-man.
Ironically, Trump’s hyper-masculinity is evocative of no one so much as his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who famously chose to display himself bare-chested, astride a large horse, the personification, presumably, of Machismo. Which leaves us with this question: in a face-off between the United States and Russia, which one of the two leaders is more all-man, and which one less?