Stubborn Stereotypes Hold Women Back

Think of a woman leader in your organization. Would you say she's "assertive" or "bossy?" Is she "in control" or is she "cold?" Is she "hands on" or "a micromanager?"

Women continue to face entrenched stereotypes that cast men (and only men) as "natural leaders." Maybe you, too, believe that the most effective business leaders are aggressive, driven men who never let their emotions play in business decisions.

But have you considered how this stereotypical view of "strong leaders" pushes a double bind that penalizes women? Research shows when women take on "male" leadership traits, they're deemed ruthless and too ambitious. If they don't "lead like a man," they're judged "too soft" to be leaders.

These stubborn stereotypes are not only holding women back, they're also keeping men from developing a more effective, balanced leadership style, according to "Moving Beyond Male/Female Leadership," a recent study from executive coaching firm Skyline Group Inc.

Employees surveyed said they most respect assertive, competitive male leaders and communicative, inclusive female leaders, but have less favorable feelings toward men and women who exhibit the other gender's "accepted" leadership styles. What's worse, the study found that women promote these gender stereotypes as much — or more — than men.


The Skyline study found women who adopted "masculine behaviors" were viewed by male and female employees as bossy. The study looked at seven key facets of leadership:

1. Executive presence — Employees respond more favorably to women who display poise and authenticity and less favorably to those who "command respect."

2. Self-confidence — Women who display confidence through actions are more appreciated than those who talk about their accomplishments.

3. Emotional control — Women leaders are expected to share their feelings or risk being seen as "cold."

4. Entrepreneurship — Men are praised for taking big risks, while women are expected to offer less-risky (and more) options.

5. Coaching & mentoring — Women leaders who create development plans are seen as bossy. Those who involve employees in planning and exploration aren't.

6. Monitoring direct reports' performance — Daily progress checks will label a woman as a micromanager. Looking at overall performance is seen as more effective.

7. Planning & organizing — When men make small decisions to yield a larger plan, they're viewed as leaders. When women use the same strategy, they're seen as dictatorial.

Facing steadfast, but erroneous, stereotypes of what makes an effective leader, many women are pushed to continually recalibrate their behavior. As one Catalyst report put it, women are "damned if you do, doomed if you don't." Catalyst is a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business.


So, what can companies do to chip away at these stereotypes so that they are able to leverage the best talent — male or female — in leadership roles?

I agree with many of Catalyst’s recommendations:

  • Provide training that raises awareness of the effects of stereotypic perceptions. Include information on recognizing bias, inconsistencies between company values and actual behavior, and the causes and detrimental effects of gender inequality at work. Look at your formal evaluations. Are they based on well-defined criteria? If not, gender bias can creep in.
  • Assess the workplace and identify ways women are at risk of bias. What is the ratio of men to women in the company, and in specific work teams or divisions? What's the ratio of men to women at specific job levels? 
  • Create innovative work practices that target stereotypic bias. Cultures that favor authoritative and hierarchical leadership styles are often less welcoming of women and/or supportive of their career goals.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself: When you think about a woman leader, what qualities does she have? What are her strengths? Chances are your perceptions of what makes "a good woman leader" are similar to those of your colleagues.

And that's a problem. Because the way you think about effective leadership is likely based on gender stereotyping, which can derail women's career goals; keep men and women from being their strongest, authentic selves at work; and, certainly, depress business results.

Wiping out stereotypes — the first step in workplace transformation — starts with you.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News