The power of knowing a woman is in charge

New research examines how female leadership can inspire confidence, improve achievement and promote gender equality in educational and professional settings

The role of leaders in shaping various outcomes has been a hot topic in economics for a long time. There's strong evidence showing that leaders can influence group performance in many settings, from corporations to local villages and even whole countries. Female leadership, in particular, has the potential to inspire girls and improve their education, shape policy, reduce bias, enhance the selection of male politicians, cut down on crimes against women, boost women’s entrepreneurship, increase women’s future political participation, and even reduce sex selection.

But why? It could be due to the fact that female leaders promote different types of policies, or exhibit different types of traits, behaviours, and leadership styles. Or is there something symbolic and special in just knowing that a woman is in charge? Can just that knowledge have an impact on the world? 

New UNSW Business School research explores exactly why this is. “Our study highlights a critical discovery: the secret ingredient that makes female leadership so powerful has finally been explained with laser-focused precision,” said Alberto Motta, a Professor in the School of Economics at UNSW Business School. “The key contribution of this research is the identification of a previously overlooked mechanism – the mere fact of knowing that a woman is in charge significantly influences group outcomes.”

Professor Motta, who co-authored The Power of Knowing a Woman Is in Charge: Lessons from a Randomised Experiment together with Professor Isabella Dobrescu and Akshay Shanker, a Research Fellow in the School of Economics at UNSW Business School, explored whether the simple fact of knowing a leader’s gender can affect educational outcomes (all other things being equal).

To achieve this, Professor Motta said one would need to compare the impact of randomly selected male and female leaders, while also potentially keeping their gender information private. “Accomplishing this is a difficult task because settings in which leadership positions are randomly assigned are rare, and even more so with the added requirement that those in charge remain anonymous,” he said.

Professors Alberto Motta and Isabella Dobrescu, School of Economics at UNSW Business School.jpg
UNSW Business School Professors Alberto Motta and Isabella Dobrescu together with Research Fellow Akshay Shanker conducted research which explored whether knowing a leader’s gender can affect educational outcomes. Photo: supplied

Student performance, gender and team leaders

In their study, conducted in a classroom setting, the researchers aimed to isolate the effect of knowing the leader's gender on student performance. “This setup allowed for more precise conclusions about the impact of female leadership, showing that the mere knowledge of a leader being female can lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes,” said Professor Motta. “These improvements are comparable to hiring highly effective teachers, providing intensive tutoring, or drastically reducing class sizes.”

More specifically, the study involved a large cohort of undergraduate students participating in a term-long online economic simulation, which accounted for 20 per cent of their final course grade. The students were randomly divided into groups, each led by a peer-selected through random assignment. Importantly, the gender of the group leaders was disclosed in some groups but not in others, allowing the researchers to isolate the impact of gender disclosure on student performance.

By comparing the performance of female students in groups with disclosed female leaders against those in groups with undisclosed female leaders and disclosed male leaders, the study provides robust insights into the effects of female leadership in an educational context.

Read more: How Alison Mirams champions gender diversity in the construction industry

The study found that, overall, the gender of the leader did not significantly affect the outcomes of the assessment for the entire cohort. However, a deeper analysis showed that female students performed significantly better when their group leader’s gender was disclosed as female. Specifically, female students in these groups achieved 0.26 standard deviations higher course grades compared to those in groups where the leader’s gender was not disclosed, and 0.22 standard deviations higher than those in groups with disclosed male leaders.

These findings suggest that female students benefit from knowing that their leader is female, likely due to reduced anxiety and a reversal of stereotype threats. The female students in these groups also attempted more difficult practice questions, indicating increased confidence and engagement.

The researchers used structural estimates to further explore the mechanisms behind these effects. The analysis indicated that the observed benefits were not due to changes in the students’ ambition, patience, self-control, or perceived ability. Instead, the primary driver appeared to be a reduction in anxiety and the positive role model effect provided by a female leader.

When conducting research, Professor Dobrescu said it is crucial to understand why certain effects occur, rather than simply noting their existence. “For instance, recognising that female leaders have positive impacts isn't enough; it's important to pinpoint the underlying reasons. By identifying the core mechanisms – such as psychological responses – we can apply these findings across various settings, making them universally relevant,” she said.

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The study found that female leaders positively impact female students’ performance by serving as role models and reducing anxiety and stereotype threats. Photo: Getty Images

“This deep analysis helps uncover fundamental principles that drive behaviour, which can be applied to education and beyond. Key factors like patience, self-control, self-perception, and ambition play significant roles across different frameworks.”

In this particular study, Professor Motta said the presence of a female leader seems to reduce stereotype threat for female students, making them feel more included and thereby increasing their productivity. This increased sense of belonging reduces the psychological effort cost associated with feeling out of place. Instead of being overly focused on fitting in, individuals can concentrate on their tasks, leading to higher productivity and a willingness to tackle more challenging tasks. “This reduction in effort cost allows them to achieve more, highlighting the importance of understanding and addressing the underlying psychological mechanisms to improve performance,” he said.

How gender dynamics impact leadership roles

This study’s implications potentially extend beyond the classroom. For educators and policymakers, the findings highlight the importance of considering gender dynamics in leadership roles and the potential benefits of female representation in such positions. Encouraging female leadership in academic settings could help mitigate the negative impacts of stereotype threats and promote a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

“One crucial point is that it's not enough to just assign leadership roles; you also need to think about how different leaders can affect people's psychology and make sure to broadcast that information,” said Professor Dobrescu. “In many of our studies, we've found that exposure to information is key. People need to be frequently reminded of their leader's gender for it to make a real impact. This repeated exposure makes the information more salient and reinforces its importance.”

Read more: Advancing diversity and inclusion in an age of hybrid work

The research could also offer valuable insights for business leaders, particularly from a gender equality and leadership perspective. The study found that female leaders positively impact female students’ performance by serving as role models and reducing anxiety and stereotype threats. In a business context, promoting female leadership could similarly enhance the performance of female employees by providing relatable role models (otherwise known as the role-model effect), fostering a supportive environment, and reducing gender-based performance anxiety.

Importantly, the disclosure of the leader’s gender had a significant impact in the study. This highlights the importance of transparency and representation in leadership positions, and organisations could potentially benefit from openly showcasing diversity in leadership to inspire confidence and reduce biases among employees.

“We've seen time and again that just seeing, knowing something once isn't enough – it has to be a continuous process,” said Professor Motta. “Making the leader's gender a prominent part of the narrative helps reinforce the positive effects we're studying. So, it's not just about who the leader is, but also about making sure everyone is consistently aware of that fact.”

The impact of leadership on performance and confidence

Female students performed better under female leadership in the study, which could suggest diverse leadership teams might enhance overall organisational performance by leveraging the unique perspectives and strengths of female leaders, thereby fostering a more inclusive and high-performing workplace.

Similarly, female students in the study attempted more difficult tasks under female leadership. In the workplace, diverse leadership could encourage employees to take on challenging projects, innovate, and engage more deeply with their work, knowing they are supported and represented at the leadership level.

The first female Nobel Prize winner in economics, Professor Esther Duflo.jpg
The first female Nobel Prize winner in economics, Professor Esther Duflo, found that having more female politicians led to girls achieving higher levels of education and participating more in the labour market. Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“The impact of female leadership is incredibly far-reaching,” said Professor Motta, who gave the example of Esther Duflo, the first female Nobel Prize winner in economics, who studied this effect at the country level in India. Her research, which resembled a randomised controlled trial, found that having more female politicians led to girls studying more, participating more in the labour market, doing fewer house chores, and getting better education. “This shows that the positive effects of female leadership aren't just limited to the classroom but can be seen across entire countries, and likely in companies and organisations too,” he said.

What Duflo's study couldn't pinpoint was exactly why this happened, according to Professor Motta. “There were no changes in the labour market or salaries to explain the increase,” he said. “This is where our work comes in, helping to narrow down the reason. Our research suggests that the presence of female leaders made girls feel like they belonged more, which reduced their effort cost and made them more productive. This symbolic effect of female leadership likely encouraged them to engage more with education, showing the powerful, universal impact of female leaders across different contexts.”

Promoting gender equality and leadership in business

The research has important implications for gender equality in leadership roles. For businesses, this means actively promoting and supporting women in leadership positions, which can lead to a more equitable and motivated workforce. Gender equality initiatives can benefit from this research by using it to justify and design programs that support female leadership development.

Implementing policies that support and encourage female leadership can reduce stereotype threats and create a more inclusive culture. This could include mentorship programs, leadership training specifically for women, and ensuring equal opportunities for advancement.

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“In economics, we're always trying to make the world more efficient so people can express their passions, creativity, and talents, contributing to both personal and global growth,” said Professor Dobrescu. “We aim to smooth the path from talent to action and self-realisation. However, in the context of female leadership, these benefits, like reducing stereotype threats, might not naturally emerge. These benefits can be hidden and not fully considered during leadership assignment or political election processes, even though they are significant.”

Professor Dobrescu underscored the importance of finding ways to highlight and recognise these hidden benefits. Just as other hidden costs are addressed in economics (such as the environmental impact of pollution) she said the silent benefits of female leadership need to be acknowledged. “For example, unrecognised benefits can lead to underutilisation, just as unacknowledged pollution costs can lead to overproduction without proper safeguards. Recognising and internalising these benefits is essential for maximising the positive impact on society,” she concluded.


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