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The Power Game: He Says, She Does

Study finds women build alliances to reach the top

TUESDAY, Jan. 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Women climb the power tree differently then men, but they reach the top just the same.

That's the conclusion of a new study, which found that while men establish dominance from the moment they enter a situation, women move more slowly, forming alliances that ultimately help them achieve their power.

"It has always been thought that women take a more evenhanded approach to group settings, allowing for a more even exchange of ideas between all participants, while men assume a hierarchical dominant approach, with one man emerging as the leader almost right from the start, and others in the group falling into place below him," says study author Marianne Schmid Mast, a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston.

What's more, Mast adds, it has been traditionally thought that because women approach power so differently, they can't feel comfortable in a traditional hierarchical system, so many women have been blocked from the uppermost reaches of corporate America.

However, this latest research, which is published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found differently.

"Our study showed that, while women do wait longer to assume a position of power, they make powerful alliances along the way. So when they do take the leadership role, they can be just as dominant and forceful as any men in the group," says Mast.

Moreover, she adds, women can be comfortable with power.

The idea that women may not do well in leadership positions was born, says Mast, from differences in the way men and women approach the decision-making process -- what many believe is a hallmark of leadership ability.

While men are often swift in making up their minds, women take longer to decide, considering many more factors than a man might.

"A woman boss considering a merger, for example, may be concerned over how the move will affect the individuals in a company, how many jobs may be lost, or how many people may suffer," Mast says. "These are things that men traditionally don't consider when making a decision," she adds.

However, while hesitancy has been traditionally viewed as a stumbling block to power, Mast says a new recognition of the difference in governing styles should lead to a new and more equitable definition of leadership.

The new study involved 58 men and 58 women, who were divided into single-gender groups of four or five. They were asked to attend two separate meetings, one week apart, where they would discuss problems related to raising children.

Each of the two sessions was videotaped, and the participants were interviewed privately after each meeting and asked a series of questions about the group, including who they thought spoke the most and who was the most knowledgeable.

Researchers then analyzed the two sets of videotapes, watching for changes in group dynamics and interaction from the first meeting to the second. They then compared their conclusions with the answers on the questionnaires.

What they found: During the first meeting of the all-male groups, a leader emerged right away, and the other men fell into a kind of power hierarchy that easily carried over into the next week's meeting.

In the all-female groups, researchers saw the emergence of an entirely different power structure.

"During the first meeting, there was no clear-cut leader -- unlike in the male groups, in the female groups, the power was distributed evenly amongst all the participants. They each spoke about the same, they interrupted each other about the same. There seemed to be no leader emerging," says Mast.

By the second meeting, once the women were more familiar with each other and alliances had formed, leaders did emerge in each of the groups.

"What we realized was that women do assume power positions as easily as men, just not as quickly," says Mast.

For psychologist Jason Kornrich, the new theory meshes well with what is already known about the difference between the sexes.

"Traditionally, men are thought to be more dominant. They have a more obvious take-control attitude, while women tend to be more laid-back, and not so concerned with controlling everything right from the start," says Kornrich.

"However," he adds, "this 'stop and think first' approach sometimes results in the ultimate power, because it allows the woman to not only know and understand those around her better, it also helps her to form alliances that are likely to help her in assuming her leadership role."

What To Do

For 10 interesting differences between men and women, visit the Society for Women's Social Health Research.

To learn more about the psychological differences between men and women, go here or visit the Women's Mental Health Consortium.

SOURCES: Interviews with Marianne Schmid Mast, Ph.D, researcher, Northeastern University, Boston; Jason Kornrich, Ph.D, psychologist, Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, N.Y.; January 2002 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
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