How Women Leaders Can Avoid the Gender Trap - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #072

How Women Leaders Can Avoid the Gender Trap

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


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:

  • Blending the two: use a blend of masculine and feminine behavioural styles (i.e. direct and authoritative, but at the same time, know when to be more nurturing, open and inclusive). Self-awareness is essential. Some great examples in our paper here; including the Head of US Sales at General Motors and Pepsi’s high profile female CEO.
  • A delicate balance: when certain situations demand more of one type of behaviour than the other, know when to make the switch. Women leaders need to “notch up points” on both sides of the scoreboard. Understand that the balance between assertive and communal behaviours shifts between situations and constituencies. Avoid extremes and focus on self-monitoring.
  • Silencing the critic within: avoid self-limiting behaviour and underestimating your own leadership capabilities. Ask for what you deserve, build networks and leverage the ones you have.

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)


Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.



Idea conceived

January 1, 2012

Idea posted

Jan 2013
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.