There is a ‘Gender Trap’ that women leaders face. The received wisdom that female executives looking to get ahead should adopt male leadership traits is defunct. Traits a male can ‘get away with’, or even be praised for, are perceived very differently in a woman. To break the trap and cultivate a winning leadership style: women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, but remain true to certain gender expectations too.
The image of an effective leader has traditionally embodied an archetypal male; displaying traits such as assertiveness, competitiveness and self-confidence. The problem for women who seek to project those traits is that people judge men and women very differently. There exists a ‘dual standard’. We have different ‘thresholds’ for these traits, and crossing them can result in someone being viewed more negatively. Assertiveness, for example, can cross the threshold into aggressiveness.
Employees tend to be more accepting of males with coercive styles of leadership than they are of women. Moreover, women adopting assertive behaviours may be labelled in negative terms. Women can feel compelled to conceal their natural competitive instincts, even amongst each other.
The other way of moving toward the ‘male leadership prototype’ of course, is for a woman to ‘tone down’ her more expressive qualities. ‘Communal’ female values such as being helpful, friendly, caring and expressive – are consciously suppressed; with female executives ‘blocking out the softer part of themselves.’
As with the displaying of classically male traits by a female leader, downplaying or disregarding these classically female ‘communal’ behaviours, can result in negative perceptions too. An absence of consideration, support or acknowledgment, is more damaging for women leaders than for men. The latter are not penalized in the same way for not being ‘communal.’
Thus, women find themselves facing a ‘lose-lose’ situation: If they behave in line with the gender stereotype, it lacks credibility and is deemed incompatible with how a leader should behave; while on the other hand, if they push too hard toward the ‘male’ leadership prototype, it lacks authenticity and they are not thought to be acting as ‘proper’ women.
The biases inherent in these ‘perceptions’ should strike us as profoundly unfair. It might be infuriating for us that, in a modern world, they are even ‘in play’ at all. They are biases built-in to our societies over hundreds if not thousands of years though – and won’t disappear overnight. So rather than dwell on the unfairness of their existence, better to know how to identify them and how to sidestep them.
To avoid the ‘gender trap’ female leaders should consider:
Recommendations for men:
Men need to be more aware of the unconscious barriers they impose on women. Men should be more careful of stereotypes, and the attributions they make: i.e. the positive or negative slant they might apply to the same behaviours, depending on whether the behaviour comes from a man or a woman. These prejudices are complex and deep-set and even the most modern-thinking man can fall foul of them unconsciously.
Women Leaders: The Gender Trap, Toegel. G, Barsoux. J-L, European Business Review (2012)
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