A few years ago I wrote about an interesting study that found that men were perceived as being more innovative than women, but in reality the reverse was the case. Might the same apply for leadership? That was the question posed by a recent study by the University at Buffalo School of Management.
The researchers aggregated 59 years of prior research that collectively involved over 19,000 participants across 136 distinct studies. Suffice to say, the studies highlighted the ongoing challenge in having more women in senior leadership positions.
“As a society, we’ve made progress toward gender equality, but clearly we’re not quite there,” they say. “Our results are consistent with the struggle many organizations face today to increase diversity in their leadership teams.”
But why is this? They suggest a big part is down to the societal pressures that contribute to differences in personality traits between the sexes. For instance, men are still traditionally regarded as more dominant and assertive, with women perceived as more cooperative and nurturing. This results in men becoming more likely to voice their opinions and therefore be perceived as leaderlike.
“We found showing sensitivity and concern for others—stereotypically feminine traits—made someone less likely to be seen as a leader,” the authors explain. “However, it’s those same characteristics that make leaders effective. Thus, because of this unconscious bias against communal traits, organizations may unintentionally select the wrong people for leadership roles, choosing individuals who are loud and confident but lack the ability to support their followers’ development and success.”
Breaking down barriers
As with so many perceptual barriers, the researchers found that these false perceptions tended to erode the longer people spent together. In groups that spent a long time together, it was more likely that women would emerge as the leader of the group.
“The gender gap was strongest during the first 20 minutes people were together, similar to an initial job interview, but weakened after more than one interaction,” the authors say. “During the hiring process, organizations should conduct multiple interviews to reduce gender bias and ensure they’re hiring the best applicant.”
The researchers believe that perception gaps can be overcome by promoting the value of communal behaviors when conducting performance evaluations. Teams might also do more to encourage quieter members to contribute and share their ideas. Even being aware of unconscious biases can help.
“In the Obama White House, female staffers adopted a strategy of amplifying one another’s comments during meetings and giving credit to the individual who said it first, to ensure that women’s voices were being heard,” the authors explain. “Tactics like this help the most qualified individuals stand out and emerge into leadership roles—regardless of gender.”