Think Manager, Think Male

If I ask you to imagine the leader or manager of an organization, who do you picture in your mind?  Someone with years of experience?  Maybe a lot of charisma and personality?  What about gender? Do you picture a male or a female?

Research on the phenomenon called “think manager, think male” suggests that if you are like most people, you probably thought of a man.  In other words, the automatic association most people make with the word “leader” or “manager” is a male and/or has masculine qualities and characteristics.  Empirical research has examined the effect gender stereotypes has had on beliefs about leadership for decades[1], and findings have been replicated in multiple studies over many years and in various countries across the world.  In fact, a recent study replicated this and extended it to show that not only do people associate males with leadership, but they also associate females with followership[2].  In general, research leaves little doubt that “think manager, think male” is a very real phenomenon.

Why does this happen?  In psychology, we often say that the data tells us “what happens” and not necessarily “why it happens,” so it could be (and is likely) due to more than one reason.  First of all, it may be because people hold gendered stereotypes regarding what they expect out of men and women.  Additionally, it may be because, historically, more leaders have been male (which may also be due to gendered stereotypes), resulting in males being the quickest and easiest association people have in their minds when they think of leaders they know.  Similarly, media representation has until somewhat recently focused on images of males as leaders.

Regardless of why this happens, the fact remains that it does happen — even in 2018, when many believe this type of thinking is a thing of the past.  One might ask, “Does it matter?  It’s just people’s associations; that doesn’t necessarily affect their behaviors.”  But it can.  When reviewing candidates for a leadership position, people can be influenced by their automatic associations without even realizing it (such as “she just doesn’t seem to have a leadership presence about her”).  Young women can detect this sentiment among people and not try to become leaders because they don’t believe they can do it or it’s their role.

So what can be done about this?  First of all, it’s important to simply realize that it happens, and this may be something you are doing without knowing it.  Thinking these things doesn’t necessarily mean you are a “bad person,” it may just mean you are a product of the environment around you that tells you leaders should be men and women should be followers.  Therefore, be introspective and think about why you are making certain judgments about people.  Are you being honest with yourself in your evaluation of someone’s leadership potential?  Or are you biased by their gender?  In addition to being thoughtful about this in yourself, it’s also important to talk to others about it.  Again, this doesn’t mean you need to call out others for being sexist, but instead simply remind people that at times humans make stereotypes about gender, and we should avoid doing so in the workplace.  At the end of the day, basing evaluations and decisions on one’s actual ability (and not on their gender) will only result in better people becoming leaders — without any discrimination — so it’s a win-win for everyone.

[1] Heilman, M. E., Block, C. B., & Martell, R. F. (1995).  Sex stereotypes: Do they influence perceptions of managers?  Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 237 - 252.

[2] Braun, S., Stegmann, S., Hernandez Bark, A. S., Junker, N. M., & van Dick, R. (2017).  Think manager-think male, think follower-think female: Gender bias in implicit leadership theories.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47, 377 - 388.




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