NEW YORK, NY – Gender disparities continue to pervade almost all aspects of society. In the United States, fewer women than men hold elected office, women continue to earn 16% less than men on average and hold fewer CEO positions, and women control less than 1% of executive-held equity. Past studies of these gender disparities have focused on what are perceived to be inherent differences between men and women. But a groundbreaking new study from Columbia Business School takes a new approach, finding that the differences between genders can partially be explained by the existing differences in power. Through a meticulous analysis of 19 years of experimental papers on power and decades of research on sex differences, Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky presents a novel way to think about the complex relationship between gender and power differences, offering critical insights into how we can narrow societal gender gaps. 

The study, Are Many Sex/Gender Differences Really Power Differences? published in PNAS Nexus, is the first of its kind to use empirical evidence to look at how power influences sex/gender differences. Professor Galinsky and his co-authors compare the results of psychological experiments about power to the results of meta-analyses of sex/gender differences and find a correlation that when individuals exhibit feelings of power, they tend to exhibit traits such as assertiveness and confidence, but also lower perspective-taking and concern about others. Notably, the authors point out that many of these traits align closely with traditional gender stereotypes, with men typically showing more assertiveness and confidence than women but women showing more emotional sensitivity than men. Their results provide critical evidence that societal power dynamics might play a significant role in shaping gender-related behaviors. 

“One of the most visible distinctions that exists in the world is the distinction between men and women. However, if we don’t understand the role of power on behavior, we can never truly understand the differences of sex/gender,” said Professor Adam Galinsky, Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics. “Our research uncovers a game-changing revelation: existing power dynamics have a greater impact on shaping behavior than previously thought. This discovery is critical to leveling the playing field for both men and women.”

Professor Galinsky and his co-authors Northwestern Kellogg School of Management Professor Derek Rucker, NYU Stern School of Business Professor Joe Magee, Tel Aviv University Professor Nira Liberman, USC Marshall School of Business Professor Eric Anicich, and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Hannah Riley Bowles, compiled 290 effects from the research on power from the past 19 years and compared them with 102 meta-analyses on sex/gender. Both sets of studies focused on similar concepts but used different measures. To facilitate comparison, the team categorized these concepts into four fundamental categories: agency, communion, self-evaluation, and cognitive processes. Additionally, the researchers compared sex/gender differences with the effects of extraversion, a personality trait related to assertiveness and sociability, similar to their approach to power. They find that although power and personality traits like extraversion are related, power seems to have a stronger and more consistent link to sex/gender differences. This study sheds light on the influence of power dynamics on gender-related behaviors and attitudes.

Key Findings:

  • Sex/Gender Differences Correspond to Power Differences. The study finds a strong correspondence between the power and sex/gender differences, with 70.59% of sex/gender differences consistent with the effects of experimentally induced power differences.

  • Power Differences and Sex/Gender Differences are Consistent Across All Four Categories. The sex/gender difference meta-analyses are consistent with experimentally created power differences in each category: agency (66%), communion (80%), self-evaluation (65%), and cognitive processes (80%).

  • Extraversion Has a Different Effect on Sex/Gender Differences Than Power Does. While extraversion showed some similar associations with agency and self-evaluations, it displayed a different pattern in communion. This supports the idea that power has a stronger and more consistent association with sex/gender differences than extraversion, providing additional support for the study's proposition.

“In every given situation, there's a high likelihood that one person has more power than the other person. Is that difference affecting people's behavior? Absolutely,” said Professor Galinsky. “Now, we have the data to prove that power differences affect sex/gender differences in ways that hadn’t occurred to many of us, and we can use this information to start to bridge the gender gaps that exist.” 

To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted, please visit Columbia Business School.


About the Researcher

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky

Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics
Management Division
Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Dean's Office