There are several key ways in which people respond differently to women and men who are leaders. I’ll outline these differences, identify the ways in which such responses affect women’s leadership, and propose some solutions to smooth the way for women leaders.
The United States recently traveled quite a way down the road toward electing its first woman president.
Yet, incongruously, as the Hillary Clinton campaign picked up speed, an inordinate amount of attention was paid to a frivolous observation about the “low-cut” neckline of an outfit worn during a speech she gave on the Senate floor.As the first primaries approached, her campaign scrambled to embark on a blitz to present her as “likable and heartwarming,” to balance the “strength and experience” theme that had seemed especially necessary for a female candidate.
It appears that the acceptable scripts for women in powerful public political roles are still rigidly defined and easy to violate—by being too “pushy” or too “soft,” too “strident” or too accommodating, too sexless or too sexual. It seems all too easy for women leaders to run afoul of their constituents or their colleagues by deviating from the narrowly-defined set of behaviors in which cultural femininity overlaps with leadership.
With the necessity to conform to two, often conflicting, sets of expectations, high-profile women leaders in the United States are relentlessly held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. If women are to claim their share of leadership positions, and to operate effectively within such positions, women and men must be aware of these differential expectations, know how they affect both leaders and constituents, and understand what responses may be useful.
Women in leadership roles elicit different responses than do men.
Power operates as a social structure, made up of numerous practices that maintain a cultural system of dominance. The practices that maintain a power system include patterns of discourse, shared understandings about and participation in a set of values, expectations, norms and roles. This social structure transcends, in some respects, the wishes or behavior of any particular individual and has a tendency to shape decisions, interactions, and social relations to fit it. Responses to women and men in leadership roles are conditioned by a social structure traditionally dominated by men.
Researchers have identified four key ways in which female and male leaders elicit different responses from those around them. These different responses appear to be due, not so much to different leadership behaviors by women and men, as to the stimulus value of women or men in these roles. A woman leader stimulates a different reaction than a male leader because of learned expectations, shaped and supported by the surrounding social structure, that invalidate and undercut women’s attempts to be effective, influential, powerful.
Women are expected to combine leadership with compassion.
Researchers have long found that people think “male” when they think “leader,” and that this result transcends many cultural differences. Because of perceived incompatibility between the requirements of femininity and those of leadership, women are often required to “soften” their leadership styles to gain the approval of their constituents. Women who do not temper their agency and competence with warmth and friendliness risk being disliked and less influential; men face no such necessity to be agreeable while exercising power. Women who lead with an autocratic style are the targets of more disapproval than those who enact a more democratic style; men may choose the autocratic style with relative impunity, if they are effective leaders. When women demonstrate competent leadership within an explicitly masculine arena—something that often requires the application of a “harder” leadership style, they are disliked and disparaged.
People do not listen to or take direction from women as comfortably as from men.
The stereotype that women are more talkative than men is unsupported by evidence. Yet it often appears that people use women’s supposed loquaciousness as a justification for “tuning out” much of what women say. Women report that they do not feel listened to, that when they speak in meetings their comments and suggestions are ignored or belittled—and that the same comments or suggestions from men have more impact. They are not imagining this reaction. One pair of researchers trained women and men to try to take leadership of mixed-sex groups by making the same suggestions, using the same words. Group members responded to the male would-be leaders’ comments with attention, nods, and smiles; they responded to the women by looking away and frowning. Furthermore, these group members were not aware that they were treating would-be female and male leaders differently. This pattern occurs not only in the lab, but in the real world: Field studies of small group meetings in organizations show that women leaders are targets of more displays of negative emotion than men leaders, even when both sets of leaders are viewed as equally competent.
Women who promote themselves and their abilities reap disapproval.
Because they are stereotyped as less competent than men, women would-be leaders are sometimes advised to eschew feminine modesty and promote their own abilities, strengths and accomplishments. However, self-promotion can be dangerous for women. As noted above, women who act more confident and assertive than is normative for women run the risk of disapproval. Research demonstrates that when women promote their own accomplishments it can cause their audience to view them as more competent—but at the cost of viewing them as less likeable. Men who promote their own accomplishments do not reap the same mixed outcomes: as long as they do not overdo it, self-promotion brings them both higher evaluations of competence and likeability.
Women require more external validation than do men in some contexts.
Given the issues raised so far, it is not surprising to learn that, in order for women to be accepted in leadership roles, they must often have external endorsements. Particularly in competitive, highly-masculinized contexts, simply having leadership training or task-related expertise does not guarantee a woman’s success unless accompanied by legitimation by another established leader.Gender stereotypes interfere with observers’ ability to see women’s competence; it is sometimes necessary to for a high-status other to provide them with credibility.
Reacting to the reactions: How does leadership feel to women?
There is evidence that women may be more aware than men of the potential costs of leadership.Women do worry about the contradictions between acceptable feminine behavior and the requirements of powerful positions. Young women asked to imagine themselves in powerful positions rate such positions as be less positive than young men do. Furthermore, the women betray awareness of the possibility that relationship problems could ensue if they were to hold such positions. Some describe themselves as potentially very unlikable in such roles, using words such as “dominating, aggressive,” “opinionated,” “power hungry, ... mean,” “bossy, direct and aggressive.”Clearly, they recognize the near-impossibility of “softening” one’s image while yet maintaining the air of authority, determination and competence necessary to convince others that one can exercise strong leadership.
Women already in leadership positions—even those in male-dominated contexts—while acutely aware of the narrow path they must tread, find rewards in these roles: a sense of competence and of positive impactand the opportunity to empower others.These rewards, they say, help compensate for the heavy demands and the caution demanded by the contradictory expectations associated with their leadership roles. However, there is no telling how many women never get to this point—turned away from aspirations to leadership because of the difficulties and costs they anticipate.
A changed social structure changes the reactions.
An interview study of women leaders in France and Norway illustrated years ago that context could make all the difference to these leaders’ experience. The Norwegian women expressed joy and a sense of efficacy in their leadership roles; the French women, on the other hand, spoke of difficulties, conflicts, loneliness, and marginality.These differing experiences appeared linked to sharp contrasts in these women’s perceptions of their acceptance as leaders. In Norway, with its long and deeply-rooted history of women’s involvement in political leadership, women in such positions felt a strong sense of legitimacy in their leadership roles. In France, where women’s leadership was relatively new and rare, that sense of legitimacy was absent, and women were called upon to prove themselves repeatedly.
Research has since made it abundantly clear that context makes a critical difference in the ease with which women can access leadership positions, their perceived effectiveness in these positions, and the difficulties they encounter. Women face the most resistance to their leadership and influence in roles that are male-dominated and characterized as masculine.As social attitudes have shifted to define fewer arenas as masculine, acceptance of women as leaders in the other arenas has grown.
In the United States, it is no longer surprising or incongruous to see a woman as principal of a public high school, manager of a corporate department, dean of a university college, or anchor on a local newscast. Women have breeched the barriers to such positions in concert with a general relaxation in traditional gender-role attitudes as well as changes in public perceptions of what leadership entails. Yet in contexts (such as military command, high corporate office, the presidency) still defined in the public mind as requiring masculine qualities, women face tough barriers stemming from the difficulty of simultaneously transcending and accommodating to gender stereotypes. Our intellectual understanding of these barriers notwithstanding, the only way to break them down is for the first few clever, determined and thick-skinned women to dance, tip-toe, and kick their way through them.
There are ways for both organizations and individuals to support these women, and thus support progress toward a social structure in which women’s leadership is commonplace even in contexts currently defined as masculine. Organizations can strive to avoid isolating women as tokens in male-dominated departments, where their gender becomes the defacto explanation for any perceived misstep. Established leaders can endorse and legitimate women who seek or attain leadership roles. Opinion leaders such as journalists can cultivate sensitivity to the possibility that they are setting different standards of likeability and other interpersonal qualities when they publicly critique male and female leaders. As individuals, we can examine our own criticisms of women leaders for telltale signs that we are expecting the impossible—imposing the double-bind of contradictory expectations.
As first one, then a trickle of women overcome the barriers, it should finally become normal to see women holding leadership roles in contexts currently considered masculine. That very “normalcy” will moderate public perceptions of gender and of leadership, gently re-shaping the social structure that has conditioned these perceptions. The significant changes in women’s access to leadership roles over the past few decades are a necessary, but still insufficient, prelude to a society in which women and men can claim a fair share of the challenges and opportunities associated with leadership.
About the Author
Hilary M. Lips is a professor of psychology, chair of the Psychology Department, and director of the Center for Gender Studies at Radford University. She holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
Lips is the author of A New Psychology of Women: Gender, Culture and Ethnicity and of Sex and Gender: An Introduction, as well as the award-winning Women, Men and Power. Her work has been published in a number of professional journals, and she is a frequent speaker on topics related to women, power, and achievement. To learn more about the gender wage gap, visit this section of the Center for Gender Studies website.