Women Leaders: The Gender Trap

In cultivating their leadership style, women have to be conscious of which traits they cultivate and which ones they suppress. Compared to their male counterparts, there are sharp differences in what they are expected to show and what they can “get away with”.


A common fallacy among some female executives is that they need to act like men to get ahead in organizations. But from our systematic work with executives on Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development (IMD) all-female Strategic Leadership program, the answer is not so straightforward. The challenge is actually two-fold: women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, while at the same time remaining true to certain gender expectations.

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Pushing “Too Hard”
The reason that women often feel obliged to play up archetypal male traits is that these are closely associated with the image of an effective leader. What scholars dub “agentic” male behaviours – such as assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, self-confidence, and task focus – also underpin mainstream expectations about leaders.1

The problem, for women who strive to project those prototypical leadership behaviors, is that they are rarely judged in the same way as men. Even if they exhibit less extreme behaviors than certain male colleagues, they may still be viewed more negatively. A simple illustration is the former Citigroup CFO, Sallie Krawcheck, who was harshly dubbed “Sallie Paycheck” in reference to compensation that would not have been considered remarkable by banking standards had she been a man.2

Women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, while at the same time remaining true to certain gender expectations.

This dual standard was skillfully highlighted by Frank Flynn, a professor at Stanford Graduate Business School. He tweaked an existing case study from Harvard Business School about a woman named Heidi Roizen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Half of his class received the original case which talked about Heidi, while the other half were given a case where the name had been changed to Howard throughout. Prior to the class, he asked the students to go online and rate their impressions of “Roizen” on several dimensions – and found that they tended to be far harsher on Heidi than Howard. As Flynn recalls: “Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her. They disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality. The more assertive they thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her (but the same was not true for those who rated Howard).”3

The threshold of what is considered acceptable “agentic” behavior is often lower for women. Recall Jill Barad who was ousted by the board of Mattel, after three turbulent years as CEO, amid reports that “she alienated the very individuals charged with helping her grow the company and deliver shareholder value.”4 Commenting on her tough style, Geraldine Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, remarked: “These people calling her abrasive, have they met Ted Turner? Have they met Michael Eisner? Compared to most CEOs, she is not abrasive. But maybe compared to their wives she is.”5

A woman who adopts a command-and-control style or behaves in an overly assertive way is vulnerable to being labeled a “bitch”. As Penelope Trunk, a columnist for Business 2.0 magazine notes acerbically: “There is no male counterpart to this term, because men who exhibit such traits are promoted.”6

Employees tend to be more accepting of males with coercive styles of leadership. Whether women can ever afford to be perceived “as tough as men” is an interesting question. But that is only one side of the challenge. We now consider the other side.


Short On Authenticity

Even if they are not extreme in their agentic behavior, women may feel the need to tone down their more expressive qualities, for example by smiling less, by suppressing an inclination to be “warm and nice”, or by dropping the pitch of their voice – so much so, in Margaret Thatcher’s case, that she fell into the vocal range of male impressionists on television.

When women act like this, the danger is that they risk violating the gender stereotype, which prescribes “communal” female values such as being helpful, friendly, caring and expressive. As a result, they can come across as phony. Hillary Clinton, for example, was criticized in Newsweek as someone “who calculates almost everything, including her accent and laugh.”7 Later, even when she did show emotion, it triggered a huge debate about whether her tears were for real.8

More generally, women executives who are not entirely comfortable with the idea of being the boss may be inclined to block out the softer part of themselves. Consider the observation of Niki Leondakis, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. She recalls an earlier promotion to a level where most of her peers were men. As she tried to emulate their tough-minded and decisive approach, she realized: “I was holding back on some of my leadership strengths – collaboration, inclusion and building and creating teams. I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t.”9

An insight from our own research is that women feel compelled to conceal their competitive instincts, even among each other. This empirical finding shows up in a standard exercise we run in executive classes where we “randomly” select two small groups of executives. In reality, one group includes the individuals who scored particularly high on the “agreeableness” dimension in their personality test, while the other group includes those who scored particularly low. Both groups are sent off to develop a collective response to the same problem, designed to elicit divergent responses. When these groups are comprised of men (or mixed-sex), the team responses differ radically: one is very collaborative, the other very unsentimental and calculating. But when the two groups are composed exclusively of women, their responses are indistinguishable, indicating that women who score low on agreeableness feel strong social pressure to cover up that inclination.

A similar tendency shows up even more dramatically in a general exercise we set the whole class in the all-women program. We give them an open ended assignment, simply entitled “Mission Unknown”, to work on in groups. They receive no further instructions. What systematically emerges in the group presentations are grand schemes to create non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to save the world or to help others–in contrast with all-male or mixed groups that often avail themselves of the collective wisdom of the group to resolve issues of practical importance to their own careers.

These quasi-experiments jointly reveal the strong pull of the gender stereotype – to be nurturing and unselfish – even in a “safe environment” where no men are present. Our findings expose the pervasiveness of the problem for women, underlining the fact that the challenge is not just “men’s perceptions” but also their own. Even women executives with highly competitive personalities are battling against gender expectations to put the welfare of others above their own, which they have internalised.

So an excessive display of “agentic” behaviors is one risk, but disregarding “communal” behaviors is clearly another. An absence of consideration, support or acknowledgment is considered more damaging from women leaders – including in their own eyes.

If women’s behavior confirms the gender stereotype, it lacks credibility and is deemed incongruous with the leader prototype; and if it matches the leader prototype, it lacks authenticity and they are not thought to be acting as proper women. It is a lose-lose situation.

Male leaders are not really penalized in the same way for not being “communal” in their behavior and typically get more credit when they do show themselves to be helpful and warm. Men who provide work-related help to colleagues received favorable performance evaluations and reward recommendations, whereas there was little impact for women.10 Similarly, women forfeit more credibility than men if they do not deliver discipline in a considerate or sensitive way.11 It’s the dual standard in reverse. For women, altruism at work is not really an option.

Women are hence caught between two stools. If their behavior confirms the gender stereotype, it lacks credibility and is deemed incongruous with the leader prototype; and if it matches the leader prototype, it lacks authenticity and they are not thought to be acting as proper women. It is a lose-lose situation.


Recommendations For Women

From our conversations with groups of women executives, we propose three recommendations to help women avoid the gender trap.

• Blending the Two
Field research suggests that most successful women executives use a blend of masculine and feminine behavioral styles: they are not afraid to be direct, authoritative and to lead by example; at the same time, they know when to be more nurturing, open and inclusive.12

To be effective leaders, women need to understand their own psychological preferences and leadership style. Only then, can they hope to compensate for them in the right ways.

The key to managing this tension is self-awareness. To be effective leaders, women need to understand their own psychological preferences and leadership style. Only then, can they hope to compensate for them in the right ways.

Consider the experience of Susan Docherty, Head of the United States sales, service and marketing team at General Motors. Early in her career, her father told her that she was capable of great things, but that the one thing that would hold her back was that she was “bossy”. Docherty was taken aback, but took the trouble to check with colleagues, who confirmed that assessment. Docherty recalls: “There’s a big difference between being a boss and being bossy. And I think it’s even more negative when you’re a female…When a man is bossy, he comes across as assertive and in command. When a woman is bossy, she comes off as aggressive and power-hungry… I knew that as a leader, the best way to counteract coming across as being bossy would be to ask others what they thought. So in terms of my style, I’ve had to work hard at being inclusive.”13

Hence, there is a greater onus on women to think about their style and to work on it. But Taylor’s testimony also reveals that efforts on the inclusive front help to take the edge off her “bossiness”. Higher levels of communal behaviour render more acceptable higher levels of agentic behaviour.

Indra Nooyi, Pepsi’s high-profile CEO, provides an extreme example of that balance in action. On the one hand, she is a plainspoken boss who drives her employees hard and has a tough reputation, both as a decision-maker and a negotiator.14 What allows her to get away with it and makes that tough, demanding style palatable is precisely the fact that she is unusually “communal” for a CEO. She is a very caring, warm and maternal boss, who throws dinners for members of her team and their spouses, who feels comfortable advising colleagues on how to dress correctly, and who is also known for her humour and for singing in the office.

Former CEO, Roger Enrico, captures that dual quality when he says: “Indra can drive as deep and hard as anyone I’ve ever met, but she can do it with a sense of heart and fun.”15 Her colleagues say she “brings her whole self” to the office.16

A Delicate Balance
It is not always possible to behave in a way that conveys both communal and agentic traits at the same time. Certain situations clearly demand more of one type of behavior, so it is important to know when to make the switch. For example, soon after Anne Mulcahy was promoted to head up the beleaguered Xerox, she was very candid in a conference call with investors, telling them that the company had an “unsustainable business model”. Her intent was to say, “We ‘get it.’ That is, we understand this can’t get better by itself.”17 But her approach backfired badly as journalists seized on the sound bite, sending Xerox’s stock plummeting 26 percent in a single day. Later, Mulcahy conceded: “I was naive enough to think that you got rewarded for being totally honest about the nature of your problems… It was a learning experience for me, to say the least. Looking back, I should have said, ‘The company has recognized that changes have to take place in the business model.’”18

The harsh reality for women is that to be seen as credible leaders, they need to notch up points on both sides of the scoreboard. It’s about balance over time. Having survived that blunder, Mulcahy went on to leverage her communal traits to great effect as Xerox implemented painful restructuring, requiring 22,000 layoffs in her first two years in charge. She was even forced to pull the plug on the business she had personally set up shortly before being named president. The unit was essentially a victim of changes in market demand. Mulcahy noted: “They weren’t the ones accountable for the problem. You couldn’t follow a string of logic for them. [All I could do] was to take the hit personally. I hung out, walked the halls, and told them I was sorry.”19 Perhaps the greatest testimony to her successful tenure is that the board chose to appoint another woman, Ursula Burns, to succeed her as CEO.

Women leaders may need to adapt their behavior depending on who they are dealing with. With bosses, they need to show that they can confront problems, negotiate, make tough decisions and with employees they need to be supportive, approachable, encouraging and fair-minded.

Women leaders thus have to contend with the fact that the balance between agentic and communal behaviors shifts between situations and constituencies. For example, to a greater extent than men, women leaders may need to adapt their behavior depending on whether they are dealing upward or downward. With bosses, they need to show that they can confront problems, negotiate, make tough decisions, and defend the interests of the organization. On the other hand, they need to show that they are supportive, approachable, encouraging and fair-minded in order not to alienate employees. Such duality can be difficult to reconcile with authenticity and women sometimes spend many years finding the right balance. Niki Leondakis, mentioned previously, reckons it took “a good 10 years before I really found my center and learned how to be true to my values.”20

Two key factors can help women strike that balance. The first is to be more cognisant of the actual behaviours that project either strong agentic or strong communal traits – as highlighted by our survey findings in Table 1 – and to be very cautious about displaying behaviours at either extreme. The second factor is self-monitoring. Studies show that self-monitoring can help women to overcome negative gender stereotypes. Women who are high self-monitors are considered more influential and more valuable contributors than women who are low self-monitors; while the self-monitoring behavior of men is of less benefit to them. In practical exercises, high self-monitoring women were able to modify their approach during negotiations, stepping up their level of assertiveness when their opposite number also did so. By contrast, men and low self-monitoring women did not alter their behavior.21


•Silencing the Critic Within
Women must demonstrate authority and influence in a way that others – both male and female, both bosses and juniors – can recognize as leadership. As mentioned earlier, stereotypes affect not only the perceptions of others, but also perceptions of ourselves. A woman executive may be affected by her own beliefs about women and about leadership.22

Sometimes women with leadership potential hold themselves back because of their internalized beliefs about how a leader should be. For example, in her recent autobiography, the British politician, Shirley Williams, is very candid about why she refused to challenge for the leadership of the newly formed Social Democratic Party in the UK, even though she was an outstanding candidate: “In the end I quailed at the responsibility of being leader. I didn’t think I was good enough.” Today, she recognizes that she was too much in awe of her male colleagues.23

The tendency for women to underestimate their own leadership capabilities is surprisingly widespread. Internal research conducted by HP suggests that women are prepared to apply for job vacancies only if they think they fulfill 100 percent of the listed criteria. Men, on the other hand, are quite willing to submit an application if they feel they meet over 60 percent of the requirements.24

Such self-limiting behavior on the part of women may reflect a more deep-seated fear of rejection. For men, there is more of a sense of “I gave it a shot, I missed out, so what?” It probably also reflects a noted unwillingness on the part of women executives to engage in self-promotion, sensing that they will be disparaged for it. Many feel that their accomplishments should speak for themselves.25 Yet this sense of entitlement sits uneasily with the realities of organizational power. Beyond working hard and delivering results, women also need to be prepared to ask for what they deserve. Gender researchers have pointed out that “many women feel that attending to their legitimate needs and asserting their rights translates to being selfish.”26 A key question for women aspiring to positions of power therefore has to be: do you have the courage to be selfish?

A related issue for aspiring female leaders is their reluctance to use politics and influence in order to get ahead.27 They are inclined to play by the “stated” rules. Men view politics as part of the game, whereas many women express distaste for political behaviour.28 As a result, many women fail not only to build relevant networks but also to leverage the ones they have. They hence suffer the double penalty of not exploiting the resources at their disposal and the reputational damage of coming across as politically naïve. Interestingly though, in a survey of established senior executives, women were more likely to agree that playing politics had contributed to their career, than men were (55 percent versus 45 percent).29 This would suggest that successful women leaders are at least attuned to the role of politics and find acceptable ways of being effective in that arena.

Ambitious women certainly face barriers that their male colleagues do not, but some of those barriers are in their heads.

Leadership is extremely hard work and the higher one climbs, the more one must try to influence high-caliber people who are difficult, strong-willed and have a strong appetite for power. Ambitious women certainly face barriers that their male colleagues do not, but some of those barriers are in their heads.


Recommendations For Men
The gender trap concerns not only women. Men too, need to be more aware of the unconscious barriers they impose on women. In particular, they need to be more mindful of the cognitive drivers of prejudice toward female leaders and work to dispel those perceptions.

Watch out with stereotypes
Research shows that our stereotypes interfere with our information processing about people. For example, the simple practice of introducing a screen for orchestra auditions resulted in a 50 percent increase in the probability that women would make it through the initial round of auditions at the big five orchestras – and 1.6 times more likely to win an orchestral position.30 When judges listen to the applicants without the visual cues, the evaluations are quite different from when the auditions are open – showing that even experts sometimes find it difficult to overcome bias when they can see the candidates.

Watch out with attributions
Men also need to be careful with the attributions they make regarding the same behaviors, depending on whether the behavior comes from a man or a woman. Numerous behaviors, traits or attitudes are given a positive slant when attached to men and negative when attached to women. Madeleine Albright makes the point in her memoirs: “As I began to climb the ladder, I had to cope with the different vocabulary used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional).” Later she quips: “If women leaders had acted the way Arafat and Barak did during Camp David, they would have been dismissed as menopausal.”31


No End Sight

As societies evolve, we would expect gender differences to erode. One could assume that with improved access to educational and career opportunities, women actually become more like men. But that belief is misguided. Where personality traits are concerned, differences between men and women do not diminish in more prosperous, healthy and egalitarian societies. On the contrary, the gap grows more pronounced.32

Research strongly suggests that societal development actually accentuates the innate tendencies of men and women to feel, think and act differently. If men and women are indeed becoming less similar, then understanding and working with those differences becomes ever more important.


About the Authors

Ginka Toegel (Ginka.Toegel@imd.ch) is a professor of leadership at IMD, Lausanne. She is the Program Director of Strategies for Leadership – a program for senior women executives – and Mobilizing People – a leadership development program. Her current research interests focus on factors that influence leadership effectiveness, processing negative emotions at the workplace, and diversity in organizations.

Dr. Jean-Louis Barsoux is a Senior Research Fellow at IMD (jean-louis.barsoux@imd.ch). He specialises in leadership, change management and interpersonal relations. He is the co-author of several works on these topics, including Managing Across Cultures (Prentice-Hall, with Susan Schneider), The Global Challenge (McGraw-Hill, with Paul Evans and Vladimir Pucik), and The Set-Up To Fail Syndrome: How good managers cause great people to fail (Harvard Business School Press, with Jean-François Manzoni).

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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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