This article explores the impacts that biases have on women’s progression in the workplace and experiences within leadership roles, particularly compared to their male counterparts.

When considering the qualities that make a good leader, many of us will imagine the same characteristics. Be it confidence, drive, communication, decisiveness, empathy – these are just a few traits we might desire of someone in a high position of responsibility. Yet, despite consensus, many of us still hold unconscious gender biases that largely influence our perceptions of leaders and leadership.

What does the research show about gendered characteristics?

Many studies explore the impact of gendered characteristics and analyse the way we perceive certain personality traits to be more ‘male’ or ‘female’.

For example, in research undertaken by the Harvard Business Review in 2018 [1], gendered identities proved to be much more prominent in leadership culture than we might first have thought. Their analysis was conducted using a large dataset from the US military, examining individuals’ leadership performance against objective and subjective evaluations. The results showed that while there were no gender differences in the objective performance of men and women (eg: fitness levels and grades), subjective evaluations of character showed significant bias in the assignment of positive and negative personality traits.

When measuring the number of positive attributes assigned to each gender, no differences were identified. The results found the most common positive terms used to describe men were analytical and competent, whilst compassionate and enthusiastic ranked most popular for women. However, when looking at the assignment of negative terms, the results were much more eye-opening.

A diagram depicting the ranging descriptions of men and women within the US Military Performance Analysis, 2018.

Overall, women were listed with many more and much harsher negative attributes than men. Where men were most negatively described as arrogant, women were described as inept, scattered and temperamental.

From this study alone, it is clear to see that a significant bias exists in the way that men’s negative attributes are framed against women’s. With a wide range of positive descriptions, men will undoubtedly benefit from the indication that these give about their ability to lead. This begs the question, how are women impacted by the characteristics assigned to them?

What impact do gendered characteristics have on women and leadership?

Compassion is one of the most desired traits in a leader, a trait most commonly assigned to women. While many positive leadership attributes are assigned to women it is the negative ones that have a considerable impact. For example, when men are described as extremely competent, the description of women as being  ‘inept’ suggests a divisive difference in gendered competency. While the varied descriptions given to both genders may seem insignificant on the surface, it is important to understand that these notions contribute to the maintenance of a stereotype. More broadly, the preference for male leadership qualities is contributing to society’s perception that leaders are being predominately male.

As a result of these messages, some women have taken a performative approach in adopting masculine identities within the workplace. Katherine Graham, Co-founder and Chair of the Board of Directors at CMP, spoke about the moment she realised that she had been internalising gendered stereotypes for a large proportion of her career. This discovery came when Graham was questioned by her younger daughter as to why she was dressed ‘like a man’ to go to work. It was then that she discovered how adhering to a ‘masculine profile’ and mirroring masculine traits had been her suit of armour in the workplace.

“The incident really brought my assumptions to the surface, that seniority, power, leadership, gravitas and expertise were purely masculine things. As a woman going out to work, I resorted to every bit of help I could get. If it took carrying a briefcase instead of a handbag, that’s what I did.”

KATHERINE GRAHAM, WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE 2020

It is evident from the research and the reality of women’s experiences that change is needed to redefine society’s vision of the perfect leader. Where we often underestimate the subliminal messages that we pick up about what makes a good leader, it is important to acknowledge how these views manifest as a real consequence for members of the workforce. Rather than creating the need for women to embody masculine characteristics, our workplace culture must move towards defining leadership purely by ability, rather than gender.

Sources:

[1] Smith, D., 2018. The Different Words We Use To Describe Male And Female Leaders. [Accessed 1 December 2020].

[2] Katherine Graham, Women in Leadership Conference, September 2020

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When considering the qualities that make a good leader, many of us will imagine the same characteristics. Yet, despite consensus, many of us still hold unconscious gender biases that largely influence our perceptions of leaders and leadership.

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