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REVIEW article

Front. Ecol. Evol. | doi: 10.3389/fevo.2021.676805

An evolutionary explanation for the female leadership paradox Provisionally accepted The final, formatted version of the article will be published soon. Notify me

  • 1Biology Department, Mills College, United States
  • 2Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, United States
  • 3Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 4Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology Unit, German Primate Center, Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, Germany
  • 5Department Anthropology/Sociobiology, University of Göttingen, Germany

Social influence is distributed unequally between males and females in many mammalian societies. In human societies, gender inequality is particularly evident in access to leadership positions. Understanding why women historically and cross-culturally have tended to be under-represented as leaders within human groups and organizations represents a paradox because we lack evidence that women leaders consistently perform worse than men. We also know that women exercise overt influence in collective group-decisions within small-scale human societies, and that female leadership is pervasive in particular contexts across non-human mammalian societies. Here we offer a transdisciplinary perspective on this female leadership paradox. Synthesis of social science and biological literatures suggests that females and males, on average, differ in why and how they compete for access to political leadership in mixed-gender groups. These differences are influenced by sexual selection and are moderated by socioecological variation across development and, particularly in human societies, by culturally transmitted norms and institutions. The interplay of these forces determines within and across species the emergence of female leaders. Furthermore, females may regularly exercise influence on group decisions in less conspicuous ways and different domains than males, and these underappreciated forms of leadership require more study. We offer a comprehensive framework for studying inequality between females and males in access to leadership positions, and we discuss the implications of this approach for understanding the female leadership paradox and for redressing gender inequality in leadership in humans.

Keywords: Leadership, gender, hierarchy, evolution, Ecology, Mammals, cooperation, Coalition, Dominance, Primates, collective decision-making

Received: 06 Mar 2021; Accepted: 25 Jun 2021.

Copyright: © 2021 Smith, von Rueden, Van Vugt, Fichtel and Kappeler. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence:
PhD. Jennifer E. Smith, Mills College, Biology Department, Oakland, United States,
PhD. Christopher R. von Rueden, University of Richmond, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, Richmond, 23173, Virginia, United States,