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Lead Your Team Leadership

People Don't Think Women Are Natural Leaders

Women trying to climb the corporate ladder and smash through the glass ceiling face two key challenges: Society doesn't think they are natural leaders, and doesn't like it when they act like they are.

That's the finding of a new meta-analysis (an integration of a large number of studies addressing the same question) that shows that even today leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. The research was done at Northwestern University.

"Women are viewed as less qualified or natural in most leadership roles, the research shows, and secondly, when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous," the researchers said.

Previous research found that predominantly “communal” qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are associated with women, and predominantly “agentic” qualities, such as being assertive or competitive , are associated with men.

It is these agentic — or manly — qualities that are believed to be essential to successful leadership. Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them, the researchers said.

The good news for women is that the study found that people's attitudes toward women in leadership are changing. Although women still face these prejudices , these biases are not held as strongly as they used to be.

“Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority,” said Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern and a co-author of the study.

“Women’s experiences will differ depending on their culture,” she said. “We would like to have more data from different nations, and also sub-cultural data within the United States that takes race and social class into account, but that’s something to look to in the future.”

Jeanette Mulvey
Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.