Gendered Leadership

Key Takeaways

  • Male and female leaders are often judged on different criteria.
  • Individual perceptions of gender and the qualities of a leader can alter how an individual perceives leadership decisions by men and women.
  • These attitudes create leadership challenges for women and men.

A record number of women were elected to the House and Senate in 2020,[1] yet women remain consistently underrepresented in American politics. But the reasons for this inequity are more complicated than, “sexism exists.” Research on gender and political candidates reveals a complex set of factors that has important implications for male and female leaders.

Gender matters when individual beliefs about gender and expectations about leadership come into conflict. For example, Schneider, Bos and DiFilippo recently studied gendered attitudes about leadership traits. They asked respondents how much they valued various traits (which are often stereotypically associated with men or women) in leaders and in women. They found that judgment of women candidates was predicted by individual differences in the desirability of different qualities in women and leaders. If a person valued aggression in a leader, for example, but not in a woman, then that person would punish a female leader who showed aggression.

Note that both of those factors had to be present.

Schneider, Bos and DiFilippo’s work fits with my own previous research, co-authored with Meredith Meyer, on gender views and responses to candidate messages. In our experiments we had male and female candidates talk about stereotypically masculine (crime and national defense) or feminine (childcare and education) issues. We varied both the gender of the message and the gender of the candidate.

We found that male candidates had a more complicated task than female candidates. In our experiments, respondents with highly rigid, stereotypical views of gender liked male candidates who discussed masculine issues (such as national defense) and disliked male candidates who focused on feminine issues (such as education.) Conversely, respondents with less rigid views of gender liked seeing a male candidate promote feminine issues and punished those who stuck with traditional stereotypes.

Female candidates, in contrast, were always better off using stereotypic issues. Those with more rigid views liked seeing female candidates adopt gender “appropriate” issues. Those with less rigid views preferred those messages, not because they conformed to a stereotype, but because they were more supportive of those issue positions.

These studies help highlight the task and challenge that leaders face. In both studies, the gendered expectations of the respondent shaped their response to leadership messages. It is about both stereotypes of gender and stereotypes of leadership.

Increasingly, research on gender and leadership has found that sexism is a problem that hurts women and men. Sexist stereotypes limit acceptable behaviors. They constrain men and women to particular roles congruent with gendered expectations.

But for leaders to be successful they need to push back on both gendered stereotypes and power stereotypes. Because being a successful leader requires both stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities. Leaders have to be assertive and understanding and communicative, for example.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. Addressing gender equity starts, though, by recognizing why workers or voters might be resistant to female leadership, and why male leaders may lean on stereotypically masculine traits. It is not necessarily knee-jerk misogyny that drives resistance to female leadership or overly aggressive male leadership; it is about the traits individuals look for in leaders and how they have attached gender to those traits. We need to work to not just combat sexist stereotypes, but also think about what leadership means, how we define strong successful leadership, and the gendered nature of some of our definitions of power.

[1] Don’t get too excited. Women still only make up about 27% of the House and Senate.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.