Washington, August 3 : A new study by researchers at the University of Iowa suggests that the age factor might have benefited Barrack Obama, and hurt Hillary Clinton while they were vying to be the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.
The study 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.
The online survey of 1,996 adults also shows that U.S. citizens believe that women's contributions at work start to decline at 59.7, compared to age 61.3 for men.
Lead researcher Michael Lovaglia, a sociologist in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that such expectations might have hurt Clinton who is 60, but helped Barack Obama who will soon hit the "ideal" leadership age of 47.
"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'. 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,'" Lovaglia said.
The perception that men's contributions at work begin to decline at age 61.3 also goes to indicate that John McCain will have to work against his age, he said.
"He's going to have to try very hard to manage that issue and overcome people's expectations that he's lost a step," he added.
Lovaglia says that the perception that women reach their leadership peak earlier than men has mixed implications for women in the workforce.
According to him, 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 were considered past their professional prime sooner than men.
"What this suggests is that women are under more pressure to get to the top fast. 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," he said.
Lovaglia said the survey could also explain the surge in the popularity of plastic surgery, for it suggests that there are real professional reasons for wanting to look young.
"It doesn't mean plastic surgery is going to be effective in changing expectations for leaders, but it does explain why people seek it. It's not just vanity. Age can affect your career, and probably more so for women than men," he said.
The survey also revealed that people though that women needed 14.2 years of experience to be qualified to run a major company, 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. 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," Lovaglia said.
The survey also showed that older, more educated individuals with high-powered careers preferred older bosses.
The ideal leadership age increased by one-sixth of a year for each year of the respondent's age, but at some point in their 50s, respondents started to prefer a boss younger than them, Lovaglia said.
"Age is a complicated status characteristic. 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," he said.