Leadership Styles and Gender Stereotyping

15/12/2016By Patricia Pryce
Patricia Pryce, Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University takes a look at leadership styles and gender stereotyping.
Leadership styles

“The women in senior positions all have the reputation of being ‘strong women’ but the men don’t have that reputation. Being labelled a strong woman is not always seen as a positive thing, they’re seen as aggressive.”

This quote is taken from a research project I carried out for a division of a FTSE 100 company a few months ago.  It demonstrates that, despite the fact that more women are working their way to the top of the corporate ladder (although the pace at which this is progressing remains slow), they continue to face the leadership dilemma known as the ‘double-bind’. A simple way of describing this phenomenon is this: one man’s assertion is another woman’s aggression.  Why does this double standard continue to apply?

Successful organizations and successful leaders are frequently seen to share the same characteristics, characteristics based on typically male attributes such as strength, aggressiveness and competitiveness.  Men’s leadership style tends towards ‘command and control’ being task-focused and autocratic.  Women’s leadership style tends to be more democratic, inclusive and collaborative – qualities associated with a transformational leadership style (a style highly valued in today’s business world, being credited for increasing levels of employee engagement, job satisfaction and trust).

Men who adopt the women’s style, are held up as exemplars of good leadership style whereas women who adopt the men’s style are viewed as unfeminine, aggressive and ‘bullying ball-breakers’.  Moreover, the democratic, inclusive and collaborative leadership style is not as highly valued in women as these qualities tend to be seen as ‘natural’.

This creates tensions for women leaders as they continue to be evaluated against the ‘masculine’ standard of leadership.  They are required to be ‘tough’ in line with their professional role (to be seen as the leader and earn respect) and at the same time to be ‘soft’ in line with gender stereotypes (or face being negatively judged or disliked).  When women act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes they are viewed as less competent leaders, when they act in ways that are inconsistent with these stereotypes they are considered unfeminine.

This was very much in evidence in an earlier research project within a major investment bank where participants were asked to describe their female leaders.  When giving positive descriptions of the most senior women, there were many examples of a leadership trait followed by a personal attribute:

“She is an extremely successful banker, yet charming”

“She is highly skilled at what she does, but is also a very nice person”

This requirement to justify the individual woman’s work success (evidence that they had used their organizational and personal power) with a positive personal attribute plays to gender role stereotypes of women who are successful in male-dominated work environments.

In reality, men’s and women’s leadership styles are more similar than dissimilar – suggesting that it is not actual differences in behaviour between men and women that create the double-bind but our interpretations of them.

Our own, and society’s, deeply-rooted biases, preconceptions and expectations get in the way of being able to evaluate leadership behaviours accurately.  If companies fail to acknowledge and address the double-bind dilemma faced by their up-and-coming women leaders they will continue to lose out on their top female talent.  Ultimately, it’s not women’s styles that need to change but our response to gender stereotypes.  So what can we do to minimise the impact of the ‘double-bind’?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Be aware of our own biases, preconceptions and expectations – are they applied differently across male and female populations?  Recognise that we all have unconscious biases that impact our judgement
  • When making assessments (and judgements) of leader behaviours think about with whom you are making comparisons e.g. “She’s a shameless self-promoter” vs “He knows his true worth”
  • Provide all leaders with the tools and resources, including training and education, to increase awareness of women leader’s skills and the impact of unconscious bias
  • Evaluate your leadership competency frameworks, performance management systems and promotion criteria – are you assessing against objective and unambiguous criteria or are criteria skewed towards the ‘think manager, think male’ tradition
  • Assess the workplace to identify how women may be at risk of stereotypic bias; create and implement innovative working practices to target these


Patricia Pryce

Patricia Pryce

Founder, Beauwest Consultancy

Patricia is the founder and co-director of Beauwest Consultancy Limited, a learning and development consultancy specialising in personal, management and leadership development and executive coaching. She works with listed PLCs as well as a number of SMEs, both in the UK and abroad.

Patricia is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University. She completed her PhD at Cranfield, which focussed on the role social capital plays in senior level promotion systems in investment banking. She is also interested in the development of women leaders.