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The Catch-22 for Female Leaders

Women who want to be executive-level leaders need to manage their ‘agentic behaviour’ with exceptional agility

Women who want to be executive-level leaders need to manage their driven behaviours with exceptional agility. Research shows that demonstration of these behaviours is necessary to be considered leadership material (Glick, Zion, & Nelson, 1988; Rudman, 1998). However, driven women also face social repercussions for not being "nice" enough, especially within lower levels of the organisational hierarchy (Wille, Wiernik, Vergauwe, Vrijdags & Trbovic, 2018) . Thus women face a Catch 22: to be considered a viable leadership contender they must exhibit driven behaviours, but in so doing, they may be discounted as being too hostile or difficult to work with.

How does this Catch 22 arise? Let us consider the nature of driven behaviours. Known as agentic behaviours in the research, they comprise two parts: agentic competence and social dominance (Rudman & Glick, 2001). Agentic competence is about being self-reliant, individualistic, and ambitious. Social dominance is about competitiveness, decisiveness, aggressiveness, and forcefulness. Important changes in gender roles mean that women are now encouraged to enact agentic competence. However, prescriptive gender stereotypes still appear to view social dominance in women as undesirable, and women who engage in behaviours that advance their interests at others' expense face social sanctions. The sanctions women face vary from exclusion during meetings to being passed up for mentorship opportunities and promotion.

While it is socially acceptable for men to act with social dominance, women are expected to demonstrate "communal qualities". Communal qualities include being kind, thoughtful, sensitive to others’ feelings, and social submission. Women who do not behave in this way may be perceived as bossy, arrogant, cold, “shrill,” or unfeminine (Phelan, Moss-Racusin, & Rudman, 2008). Consequently, women striving for leadership positions can enact communal behaviours and be liked but not respected, or can enact agentic behaviours and be respected but not liked (Rudman & Glick, 2001).

What does this mean for organisations that seek to promote gender diversity in leadership? First, organisations need to review their performance and review systems to ensure that they are applying a gender neutral lens to their assessment of leadership behaviours. Second, it requires recognition of the fact that an extra demand is placed on women: they need to engage in a level of impression management that is not required of their male counterparts. HR, coaching, and talent management systems must acknowledge the differences that women have to navigate within the business, and respond in ways that promote equality of opportunity. Finally, organisations have an important role to play in creating a culture where women can behave in socially-dominant ways without being viewed as lacking, undesirable, or dysfunctional in some way, both as people and as women. Organisations need to apply an objective lens to where practices, processes, and other aspects of their culture may support – or undermine – a gender-equal view of social dominance.

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