Women Leaders Still Troubled by Gender Stereotypes and Hidden Bias

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We like to think that gender bias and sexism exited the workplace with the entry of the Civil Rights and Equal Pay Acts of the ‘60s. And while these laws may have curbed much overt bias and sexism, unconscious gender bias in the workplace appears to be alive and well—forcing women leaders to walk “a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent—or too masculine to be likable,” suggests industryweek.com.

For many women leaders, the standards by which they are judged do seem different from their male counterparts. While “tough” is a compliment if you’re referring to a male leader, it still isn’t for most women leaders.

  1. Is there a difference in the leadership styles of women and men?
  2. Are our expectations for female leaders different from those we have for male leaders?
  3. Do unconscious biases still create barriers?
  4. And can women really be themselves and achieve as leaders?

GettyImages-505594930.jpgFirst, is there a difference between the way male and female leaders lead? Research from Villanova University’s Sarah Burke says there is. Their study of female accountants showed that “females are more likely than males to indicate that they use an interactive style of management called transformational leadership.” This leadership style includes empathy, emotional cue-taking, consensus building, coaching and inspiring.

Now, you may be wondering (as I was), if female leaders do gravitate toward this style, is it intentional because they believe it will be better received—making them more successful as a leader? Author Louann Brizendine, M.D. says not necessarily. There are physiological differences in female brains (higher levels of oxytocin) at the root of these tendencies. Additionally, cultural influences from a young age seem to sway women’s leadership styles as they take on these roles.

Are the expectations we have for female leaders subconsciously biased? How do we feel when we encounter a female leader that doesn’t lead in this transformational style and adopts the more transactional (or masculine) style … or even tends toward the old school authoritarian style?

Team of business people“Gender stereotypes and the norms around behavior in the office have shifted a little but nowhere near as much as most of us would like to think. Despite more women gradually climbing the ladder and taking on more responsible roles, the experts and research shows gender bias remains prevalent,” reports women.anz.com.

A recent conversation with a friend about her boss in IT ended with this unsettling comment: “She’s not very nice. She holds people at arm’s length. I think she feels like she has to act tough to lead.” My friend expected this female leader to be kind and compassionate. If that leader had been a man, would my friend have expected the same level of approachability?

GettyImages-542096870cropThese biases (albeit unintentional) do create barriers for women. There are two types of workplace bias, according to fastcompany.com. When certain characteristics (caring, warm, emotional, sensitive, intuitive, etc.) are used to describe women, it’s known as descriptive bias. When women push past these particular characteristics, and are viewed less favorably because of it, you have prescriptive bias.

These biases and gender stereotypes are part of the fabric of our society and have changed little over the last 30 years. Because of this ingrained nature, those in a position to evaluate women and men need to be watchful to the possible influence of stereotypes on their judgment.

How can women be authentic and succeed in leadership roles? Successful leaders get the best from everyone on their team. To do this, leaders must continually be developing and adjusting their styles for the varying personalities of each team member.

Women and men can both build on their inherent leadership strengths—developing their weaker transformational or transactional styles. According to research at Concord University, both of these leadership styles will remain in big demand in the business world. Their 3-style study confirmed little difference in success between the two, but a definite edge over an older, more authoritative leadership approach.


Regardless of gender, becoming a great leader takes time and builds on inherent strengths and weaknesses. Whether based on neurobiology or experience and training, each man and woman must continue to evolve and develop into a strong, capable leader.

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Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.