Age and its perceived impact on leadership abilities

Hillary Clinton prides herself on experience, but she may have had a better shot at the White House if she were younger, a University of Iowa study suggests.

The research suggests that Americans expect women to reach their peak performance as leaders at age 43, four years before men's perceived peak at age 47. They also believe women's contributions at work start to decline at 59.7, compared to age 61.3 for men, according to the nationally representative online survey of 1,996 adults.

Those expectations may have hurt Clinton, who is 60, but helped Barack Obama, who will soon hit the "ideal" leadership age of 47, said Michael Lovaglia, a sociologist in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who led the study.

"Ask people if her age and gender were factors and they'll say, 'Of course not. It's her. I just don't like her,'" Lovaglia said. "Some of their expectations for a leader are subconscious, and underlying biases can make people uncomfortable. So they find other reasons to explain their unwillingness to support a candidate, like 'she's cold' or 'she doesn't connect with people.'"

The results - specifically the idea that men's contributions at work begin to decline at age 61.3 - also confirm that John McCain will have to work against his age. "He's going to have to try very hard to manage that issue and overcome people's expectations that he's lost a step," Lovaglia said.

Respondents' ages ranged from 18 to 92. To measure people's views on the ideal age of male and female leaders, researchers asked at what age men and women make the best boss at work.

The perception that women reach their leadership peak earlier than men has mixed implications for women in the workforce, Lovaglia said.

Young professional women could benefit by rising to leadership positions earlier in their careers than men. But older women could lose out on promotions later in life if they're considered past their professional prime sooner than men.

"What this suggests is that women are under more pressure to get to the top fast," Lovaglia said. "Men have four additional years before people to expect them to reach their peak performance as leaders, but women have to prove themselves more quickly. The climb is steeper for them."

Lovaglia said the survey could also explain the surge in the popularity of plastic surgery. While it's generally viewed as a vain move made by people who don't want to get old or simply want to be more attractive, this research suggests there are real professional reasons for wanting to look young, Lovaglia said.

"It doesn't mean plastic surgery is going to be effective in changing expectations for leaders, but it does explain why people seek it," Lovaglia said. "It's not just vanity. Age can affect your career, and probably more so for women than men."

The survey did uncover a potential advantage for women. When asked how many years of experience a man or woman needs to be qualified to run a major company, respondents said women need 14.2 years - two years less than men who are expected to require 16.5 years of experience. One implication is that experience may be more important for a woman leader than for a man, although more research is needed for confirmation.

"In terms of the election, it was right for Clinton to emphasize her credentials and experience. That helped her," Lovaglia said. "What she and her campaign didn't expect was that Obama's lack of experience would not be a deficit. Obama has very little experience, but it didn't seem to matter. Lack of experience for a woman, however, would likely eliminate her from contention."

Results also showed that older, more educated individuals with high-powered careers prefer older bosses. For each year of the respondent's age, the ideal leadership age increased by one-sixth of a year. But at some point in their 50s, respondents started to prefer a boss younger than them, Lovaglia said.

"Age is a complicated status characteristic," Lovaglia said. "Supervisors are seen as gaining value up to a certain age, but that prestige and influence seems to reach a maximum at some point. And experience cuts both ways. The only way to get a lot of experience is to get older. So experience is good, as long as you don't get too old doing it."

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