Therese Huston based her book How Women Decide on a premise: “Is a woman’s experience issuing a tough call, a decision with serious stakes, any different from a man’s? I’ve found that when a man faces a hard decision, he only has to think about making a judgment, but when a woman faces a hard decision, she has to think about making a judgment and also navigate being judged.”
She starts out her chapter on the difference between men and women as decisive leaders with this question: “Do men decide more quickly and with less internal struggle, as many people seem to believe? We’ll also look at the complex tug of war that women face between being decisive and being responsive to others. It’s hard to be seen as both. What price do women pay when they include rather than insist?”
In surveys, people see decisiveness as an important quality of strong leaders. It might even be the most important quality. In one broad study of twenty-two countries in Europe, Huston says, all but one nation ranked decisiveness as one of the top five qualities of an outstanding leader. (France stood alone in its acceptance of leaders who took their time deciding.)
Huston cites some U.S. research that sounds more like 1915 than 2015.
“A 2015 survey had Americans go down a list of positive personal qualities and state for each item whether they thought it was more true of men or of women.8 Respondents thought that women were more likely to be compassionate and organized, but men were believed to be decisive. Another survey found that being decisive was one of the ten traits that people believed “typical American men” were likely to possess, but the same group didn’t think decisive described typical American women at all. Warm, kind, friendly, and patient were all highly fitting adjectives for women, the respondents felt, but decisive fell near the bottom of the list of forty-three terms.”
When most people think of the term “decisive,” they think of quick decisions that lead to action – and successful outcomes. By definition, then, taking your time about deciding can seem less confident, less leader-like.
Huston writes that she hates to say it, but when she thinks of women making decisions, she thinks of mother ducks. “We expect women to be more like mother ducks when they make choices, paying attention first and foremost to the needs of those around them. If you picture a mother duck and her brood crossing the street, you know she’s going to make sure everyone gets to the other side.
Proceeding ahead of everyone is fine as long as she’s simply clearing the way, but we assume that she has the group’s interests in mind and that she’s keeping an eye out for any stragglers. Do we think that her decisions center on her own independent agenda? That would be a terrible mother duck. No, we expect her decisions to reflect the helpful, concerned, and sympathetic role she plays for those who depend on her.”
Huston goes on to cite a 2009 study of almost three hundred senior business managers. The common perception among executives within two reporting levels of the CEO was characterized as “Women take care, and men take charge.”
It’s not just that people expect women to be collaborative and take into account the big picture, other people’s feelings, or the good of the team rather than their own opinion. It’s also that when they deviate from the stereotype, they’re judged harshly. Decisive women are viewed as unlikeable, where decisive men are viewed as strong and independent.
So it becomes a question of darned if you do and darned if you don’t. Women are often more open to input from others when they have big decisions to make. And a collaborative style helps her subordinates and peers fell like they have a role in the decision, which makes it more likely they’ll support it through implementation. But, Huston writes, “critics interpret an openness to input as indecisiveness; they assume that when a woman doesn’t decide on her own, it’s because she can’t.”
It’s a paradigm that we should work on changing. Taking charge should mean you can’t also take care.