Identity Crises: Occupational Hazards for Female Leaders? - Ideas for Leaders
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Identity Crises: Occupational Hazards for Female Leaders?

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Life is notoriously tough and demanding for female leaders. The difficulties, however, are not confined to balancing the commitments of home and working life. Female leaders often find it hard to reconcile their professional roles with their identities as women and feel prevented from being their ‘authentic selves’ at work. Solving the problem may depend on a fundamental shift in organizational values — and reversing ‘gendered definitions’ of leadership.


Female leaders often experience ‘identity conflict’, the sense that their identities as women and their professional identities diverge or are incompatible. The problem can be explained by gender stereotypes.

Characteristics and behaviours typically expected of women differ dramatically from those typically expected of leaders. Gender role stereotypes tend to ascribe communal behaviours and qualities such as warmth, nurturing, caring, co-operation and selflessness to women. In contrast, successful leaders are often described as possessing and requiring ‘agentic’ characteristics such as assertiveness, competitiveness and problem-solving, traditionally associated with men.
The costs of the problem to female leaders’ ‘well-being’ and emotional and psychological health can be considerable.

Recent research, based on an international sample of 638 women, from a wide range of industries, finds a link between identity conflict and higher stress levels and lower ‘life satisfaction’. (As female leaders cope with the competing demands of prescriptive beliefs, their ‘sense of self’ starts to fragment and they start to feel dissatisfied and unhappy. Often, they find themselves in ‘no-win’ situations. To be perceived as effective when exercising their authority, they may, for example, choose to display more agentic and less communal behaviours — only to find that this strategy backfires and leads to social disapproval.)

The research also finds that identity conflict affects the motivation of female leaders and makes them less likely to take pleasure in the leadership role. Sensitive to the disapproval of others, and keen to try to change the status quo — possibly for the benefit of future generations of women — they are more likely to be motivated by a sense of duty than the attainment of personal goals. (Put another way, their ‘affective’ motivation to lead is weaker than their ‘social-normative’ motivation.)

Ultimately, say the researchers, the problem may cause a woman to relinquish her leadership role. (People struggling with identity conflicts often feel they have no option but to ‘exit’ the ‘acquired’ identity.) 

What’s the solution to the problem? And is it experienced by all female leaders and in all organizations? The research suggests:

  • Positive gender identity reduces the sense of conflict. (The better women feel about their gender identity, the more easily they can integrate the new identity of leader into their ‘sense of self’.)
  • Identity conflict can diminish over time: Women who rise to the very top of the organizational hierarchy have usually assimilated their ‘leader identities’; previous experience and successful attempts at leadership have helped them identify ‘naturally’ with the social category of leader.
  • Women find it easier to assume the identity of leader where the number of female employees is high across the organization. (It is more difficult for female leaders to maintain a positive gender identity and gain a ‘licence’ to lead in male-dominated organizations.) 


These findings have important implications for senior leaders keen to retain high-potential female employees. The researchers suggest they can take a number of practical steps to ensure consistency between organizational values and female ‘gender identity’. These include:

  • Establishing formal mentoring programs that not only provide psychological support to female leaders and women with leadership potential but also convey the value the organization places on female contributors. (Such programs may be especially effective in industries and organizations where women are a minority.)
  • Making the leadership role ‘gender neutral’ by stressing the importance of leadership qualities such as collaboration, care, inspiration and interpersonal sensitivity.
  • Structuring departments and designing job descriptions so that women have more direct contact with other women.
  • Choosing executive education programs that include both women-only and co-educational sessions. (The latter may help women cultivate the feeling of acceptance by others and thus allow for a more comprehensive development of their leader identity.)
  • Coaching and counselling sessions that not only address specific leadership skills but also explore clients’ perceptions of the ‘fit’ of their gender at work.



Me, a Woman and a Leader: Antecedents and Consequences of the Identity Conflict of Women Leaders’. Natalia Karelaia & Laura Guillén. INSEAD Working Paper (2012). DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1973017

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Idea conceived

November 22, 2012

Idea posted

Oct 2013
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