Keren Joseph-Browning analyzes gender stereotypes that may be holding back female leaders. Her research shows there isn’t a lack of qualified women in the pipeline, though many believe the opposite. Joseph-Browning then draws a line between these beliefs and the stereotypes impeding women’s ascension into leadership positions.
Women in leadership is a topic of debate that has occupied much attention in recent years. Despite considerable research proving that diversity in the workplace makes business sense, a big gap still exists between the number of men and women in the workplace, particularly further up the leadership ladder — and this is especially true in the technology space. However, today we know that gender is on the agenda in all boardrooms in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. Indeed, companies are seeing the benefits of different perspectives in the boardroom and across the organization, and the issue has moved to the media mainstream. This attention is underpinned by research that shows a correlation between diversity and superior financial performance.
Noticeable by Their Absence
Unfortunately, the inescapable reality is that women remain noticeable by their absence within the senior ranks of the corporate world. According to a survey a few years back by the World Economic Forum, chief HR officers from more than 350 leading companies attributed several causes to the absence of female leaders.1 Across all industries, almost half of the respondents (44%) said that both unconscious bias among managers and a lack of work-life balance were significant barriers to gender diversity in the workplace. Nearly 40% pointed to a lack of female role models. Moreover, while women outnumber men at the university level today, and the graduate level by higher numbers, 36% of respondents still said there were not enough qualified women for the positions they were looking to fill. Only 6% blamed lack of parental leave, while just 10% claimed there were no barriers. Furthermore, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of Lean In, asserts that women hold themselves back in different ways, jeopardizing their prospects for promotion.2 And when it comes to cutting-edge technology positions, the World Economic Forum’s latest report reveals that positions in cloud computing comprise only 14% women, while females in data analytics and artificial intelligence jobs represent less than a third of staff in those areas.3
According to a report from CNN Business, “one in five women report they are often the only woman, or one of the only women, in the room at work.”4 Those of us women who are an only also report feeling restrained, under pressure, and judged. We also find that people tend to question our competence, doubt our authority, or even mistake us for a lower-level employee, turning to us to ask when lunch will be arriving or if we will be taking the minutes.
Given the high occurrence of such unconscious bias, often rooted in stereotyping, this article considers the influence of gender stereotypes and their possible impact on female leadership.
The Seeds of Stereotypes
Researchers have found that children begin to absorb gender stereotypes and expectations in early childhood.5 By early secondary school, girls are less likely than boys to say that their own gender is “really, really smart.” They are also less likely to choose activities described as intended for “super-smart” children.6 This pattern continues throughout the educational track.7
Additional gender-focused research provides interesting insights into the nature of leadership in children’s play. Boys rely on direct demands, commands, threats, physical force, and a greater use of statements that express their personal desires and assert leadership, while girls use indirect demands, polite requests, and persuasion to influence their partners’ behavior.8 Girls’ communication also consists of a more collaborative speech.9
In addition to social experiences, we know children internalize the messages they hear from their parents and teachers and what they see on television and in video games, movies, and music. Though parents and teachers often try hard not to stereotype based on gender, the assumptions we make about boys and girls may be conscious or unconscious and can result in different treatment of one group compared to another. These biases do not necessarily make a person ageist, sexist, or racist, but people can be unconsciously influenced by a stereotype — even if they do not rationally subscribe to the limitations implied by the stereotype.
Gender stereotypes shape self-perception, affect well-being, shape attitudes to relationships, and influence participation in the world of work. In a school environment, they affect a young person’s classroom experience, academic performance, or subject choice.
Therefore, should we turn our focus more on the traditional roles we play at home and in schools? Should we determine whether a gender-stereotyped behavior has been entrenched within all of us, from the very start of our interaction with the opposite sex? After all, our daycares, preschools, schools, and homes are the first environments that socialize us. Our upbringings and the different roles our parents play are relevant as well. So is it reasonable that we make the predicament of the shortage of female leaders the sole responsibility of our CEOs and our organizations’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) teams? Maybe we should focus instead on the behaviors we acquire as children along with the behaviors we teach our children.
What Research Tells Us
Stereotypical assumptions about how men and women differ have given researchers much to investigate during the last several decades. Gender stereotypes have been measured in terms of, for example, ascribed traits, role behaviors, occupations, and emotions. Researchers also have distinguished personality, physical, and cognitive components of gender stereotypes and have investigated how men’s and women’s self-characterizations differ in stereotype-consistent ways.
Today, the most common measures of gender stereotypes involve traits and attributes. But the measure that is most relevant and potentially useful to us concentrates on how gender stereotypes, biases, and discrimination affect leadership opportunities. Research has found that cultural beliefs about masculine and feminine characteristics disadvantage women in leadership assessments.10 It is assumed that men are naturally seen as leaders because authority, activity, rationality, emotional self-control, career motivation, and other characteristics associated with strong leadership are masculine.11 Characteristics linked to weak leadership, such as passivity, low ambition, irrationality, a preoccupation with emotions, and lack of emotional control are associated with femininity.12
Another Place to Look
Perhaps we should examine whether women’s leadership styles truly are different from men’s. And, if they are, is one style more effective? Is the determination of women’s effectiveness as leaders fact-based, or a perception that has become a reality? Personally, I believe women’s leadership style is different from men’s, but men can learn from and adopt the style of women and use it effectively as well. In other words, effective leadership is not the exclusive domain of either gender, and learning from each other is possible. Women’s styles are not at all likely to be less effective; in fact, they are more effective within the context of team-based, consensually driven organizational structures that are more established in today’s world. The assessment of a woman’s leadership style as less effective than a man’s is not based in fact. Rather, it is driven by persistent perceptions based on stereotypes.
Common stereotypes hold that men are task-oriented, and women are relationship-oriented. Therefore, gendering of approaches used in managing employees, as well as allocation of individuals to specific occupations based on masculinity and femininity, would lead to classifications of both sexes. Constructing a theoretical framework on what is purely female, or male, has the same consequences. A trait like “relationship-oriented” is not confined primarily to female leaders; there is a high probability that a wide range of male leaders share this skill. Just as independence as a trait could be found among male or female leaders.
Men are also often characterized as being more competent than women, as taking charge, and being in control, while women are characterized as more communal, being connected to others, and building relationships.
“Women May Make Better Managers”
To date, contemporary theories, which include the behaviors, attitudes, and skills attributed to women in management roles, appear to have had little success in shifting the attitudes of decision makers in organizations to appoint women into leadership positions, and this includes the technology domain. It has been a quarter of a century since researchers Bernard M. Bass and Bruce J. Avolio proposed the idea that “women may make better managers.”13 Despite this pronouncement, the increases of women in senior or executive roles over the past two decades have been less than inspiring. It would seem, therefore, that although leadership literature has played a significant role in raising the profile of women in management, much needs to happen in actual board rooms and management suites in order to advance the careers of women in leadership positions.
When reviewing gender and leadership theory timelines, we need to step back and think about the demands placed on leaders today. Some observations are relevant. First, these different approaches help us focus on individual traits, the behaviors associated with successful leadership, the relevant context or situation, the nature of followers (and their relationship to the leader), the type of influence that is brought to bear (transactional versus transforming), and the collaboration required to address tough issues. Second, we must recognize the interconnectivity of our globalizing world and the complexity of organizational leadership. As a result, it is no surprise that system leadership is today’s cutting-edge theory. In this context, research reveals that the importance of optimizing the potential of every player in the system becomes apparent.14 Different players will have different roles. The expectation that they will lead from their own strengths and that their contributions will be recognized and leveraged is a significant shift from historical patterns of hierarchical leadership models. Third, we must acknowledge the speed of change in so many areas of our cultural and organizational life.
Our Next Moves
I have been “one of a few” or an “only” during all the leadership-level years of my career. But I realized I had a choice: I could let this intimidate me, or I could use it to my advantage. There could be power in this situation, and I chose the latter. I believe that being the only woman in the room creates an opportunity for women to stand out and create a long-lasting impression from the start. The fact is that when women become leaders, they provide a different set of skills, imaginative perspectives, and, importantly, structural and cultural differences that drive effective solutions. In bringing a creative standpoint, a new sense of awareness may allow the finer details to surface.
As an HR professional, one of the biggest challenges my colleagues and I face is how we can work with senior leaders to support true gender equality in our organizations as we struggle with societal norms and business expectations to break gender stereotypes. I believe setting quotas around gender balance, an option pursued by some business and governments, restricts our understanding of diversity to a narrow set of characteristics, ignoring complex cultural identities. Surely, when considering board and organizational structure, we should be accounting for factors such as economic, educational, and social backgrounds, among other criteria, rather than limiting our focus to a single aspect of a person. Thus, HR professionals, working with senior leaders, must take the path of most resistance that will produce real change, rather than simply implementing a quick fix.
To help promote equality and diversity at the leadership level, HR professionals, together with DEI teams, need to look at ways to inform and indicate on best practices, such as working together with the early years education community to understand the role of socialization and early age stereotyping and their impact on women leaders. Furthermore, although the majority of people at the top of organizations are men, we know that studies indicate that it is actually women who have what it takes to effectively lead. So perhaps rather than advising female executives to act more like men to get ahead, society would be better served by more male leaders trying to emulate women leaders.
1“The Global Gender Gap Report.” World Economic Forum, 2017.
2Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
3“Global Gender Gap Report.” World Economic Forum, March 2021.
4Carpenter, Julia. “On Guard and Under Pressure: The Challenges of Being the Only Woman at Work.” CNN Business, 4 December 2018.
5Cvencek, Dario, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Anthony G. Greenwald. “Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children.” Child Development, Vol. 82, No. 3, May-June 2011.
6Bian, Lin, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian. “Gender Stereotypes About Intellectual Ability Emerge Early and Influence Children's Interests.” Science, Vol. 355, No. 6323, 27 January 2017.
7Cvencek, et al. (see 5).
8Neppl, Tricia K., and Ann D. Murray. “Social Dominance and Play Patterns Among Preschoolers: Gender Comparisons.” Sex Roles, Vol. 36, No. 5-6, March 1997.
9Murphy, Suzanne M., and Dorothy Faulkner. “Gender Differences in Verbal Communication Between Popular and Unpopular Children During an Interactive Task.” Social Development, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2006.
10Eagly, Alice H., and Blair T. Johnson. “Gender and Leadership Style: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 108, No. 2, 1990.
11Hechavarria, Diana M., and Amy E. Ingram. “The Entrepreneurial Gender Divide: Hegemonic Masculinity, Emphasized Femininity and Organizational Forms.” International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, Vol. 8, No. 3, 12 September 2016.
12Eagly, Alice H., and Madeline E. Heilman. “Gender and Leadership: Introduction to the Special Issue.” The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, June 2016.
13Bass, Bernard M., and Bruce J. Avolio. Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership. Sage Publishing, 1993.
14Eagly, et al. (see 10).