“I don’t think gender differences in leadership exist in the real world anymore. I personally work with a lot of women leaders.”
Last year, five undergraduates helped me with a research project investigating gender differences in leader emergence, or the degree to which an individual is perceived as a leader by others. As part of the project, the students gathered all published and unpublished studies documenting the strength of the gender gap in leader emergence. We then combined this information to create an overall estimate of the gender disparity, updating the last comprehensive review that was performed more than 25 years ago in a famous 1991 study by Alice H. Eagly and Steven J. Karau.
The students shared their work with the University at Buffalo community by presenting our research at the DEAL Expo, a poster competition held during open house for prospective UB students and their families. Our research demonstrates that the gender disparity in leader emergence has decreased over time, yet there continues to be a significant gender gap. All things being equal, on average, men are still more likely than women to emerge as leaders.
Despite having scientific evidence to support our conclusion, the students were approached by an individual who adamantly disagreed with our findings and said: “I don’t think gender differences in leadership exist in the real world anymore. I personally work with a lot of women leaders.”
I get this feedback often when teaching and presenting research about gender differences in leadership, but it continues to surprise me. The fact is that most evidence is not consistent with this man’s personal experience. Women represent nearly half of the American workforce and obtain 57% of college degrees. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women only occupy 39% of managerial roles and are particularly underrepresented in top management, making up about 4% of CEOs and 20% of board members at S&P 500 companies. Moreover, in the United States, women hold less than a quarter of congressional and state legislature appointments and just 16% of officer-level positions in the military.
But why does this stark gender difference in leadership exist between men and women? Research shows much of it comes down to commonly held stereotypes people have about men versus women. Academic labels describing these stereotypes refer to men as more “agentic” and women as more “communal.” In other words, while women are seen as nurturing, kind and compassionate, men are viewed as independent, assertive and dominant. This tendency is related to the gender disparity in leadership because stereotypically male characteristics tend to align more closely with our expectations of a typical leader than stereotypically female characteristics do. Thus, because of society’s automatic, often unconscious gender stereotypes, men will, on average, be perceived as more leader-like than women.
The question arises then: What can employers do to limit the influence of this gender bias? First, we recommend that organizational leaders make employees aware of this natural tendency to overvalue agentic attributes and undervalue communal attributes when selecting leaders. In our study, we found that individuals who exhibited communal qualities, such as being kind, nurturing and understanding, were perceived as less leader-like. However, research shows these same traits increase a leader’s effectiveness. Clearly, there is a disconnect between stereotypes and reality, so training people to correct for this bias should help them choose better leaders.
Past research has also shown that people are less likely to depend on stereotypes when they are held accountable for their decisions — thus, in the hiring process, it can be helpful to assign interviewers who will work closely with the person who gets the job. In addition, as people spend more time together, the strength of stereotypes dissipates, presumably because people begin to base their decisions on behaviors rather than superficial characteristics. Therefore, it may be helpful to meet with individuals multiple times during the interview process.
It also helps to downplay aspects that make gender more striking or important. For example, when organizations have only one female leader, her gender will set her apart from colleagues at the same level. Having multiple women managers reduces the prominence of their gender, as well as the likelihood people will perceive all women leaders to be the same based on conventional stereotypes.
Overall, the good news is that the gender difference in leader emergence appears to be decreasing. Hopefully, continued vigilance on the impact of cognitive biases, along with thoughtful interventions by organizations and those already in leadership roles, will help to further establish gender equality.
Emily Grijalva is an assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management and an expert on gender, leadership and narcissism. Her research on gender differences in narcissism was featured in popular media across the globe, including CBS News, MTV News, the Washington Post, Time and the Guardian.