Think leader, think male?

Written by Esther Boffey, D&I Lead


Implicit leadership bias and the lack of progress when it comes to women in leadership positions

The last several decades have seen an abundance of initiatives attempting to close the gender gap at the top jobs, but even in 2020 we still had more CEO’s named Peter than women, and only 5% of the 350 biggest British PLCs were being led by a woman. This issue now becomes even more pressing as we return to (the new) normal after the Covid-19 pandemic because while women represent 39% of the global workforce, they fell victim to 54% of job losses.

Time has shown however, that sharing shocking statistics like the ones above has not resulted into any tangible change, nor have, often well-meaning, D&I initiatives aimed at women. Perhaps it is time to stop focussing on ‘fixing’ women to fit the mould and instead have a look at how our perspective of leadership influences the underrepresentation of women at the top.

The term ‘think leader, think male’ comes from Virginia Schein’s work on stereotypes and perceptions of requirements needed to be a good manager (1973). Schein found that both men and women perceived successful managers to possess characteristics, attitudes and temperaments more commonly ascribed to men. Characteristics she included in the study were for example ambition, desiring responsibility, self-confidence and competitiveness. Schein’s research formed the basis of numerous studies and was later linked to Implicit Leadership Theory. In its simplest form Implicit Leadership Theory states that individuals have preconceptions of what traits, characteristics, and qualities a good leader possesses. Again, numerous ILT studies have linked these traits, characteristics, and qualities more strongly to men than to women. For example, Offermann & Coats (2018) and Koenig et al (2011) all found a strong unconscious tendency for leadership to be viewed as a masculine domain. These implicit expectations are directly related to how well we think our managers are doing, leading to both male and female employees rating male managers more favourably – attributing traditional leadership characteristics to them.

Some D&I initiatives attempting to close the gender gap have focussed on giving women the tools to develop perceived leadership skills like self-confidence, competitiveness and ambition. While well-meaning, this has resulted in what research has dubbed ‘walking the tightrope’ where female leaders are expected to be both strong and sensitive to get ahead and only focussing on the former, results in them being perceived as unlikeable, self-interested and hostile. Putting female leaders in a lose-lose situation. The problem deepens further when taking into account intersecting identities, with women of color being least likely to hold a leadership position. For example, assertive and ambitious black women are often met with the extremely harmful ‘angry black woman’ stereotype (Pilgrim, 2015).

The implicit perceptions we have of leaders are not just harmful for women. Organisational cultures that value and reward masculine traits such as strength, stamina, putting work first and showing no weakness leads to pressure among men to show they ‘have what it takes’ to be a leader. These expectations are directly linked to poor mental health, resulting in high levels of anxiety and stress.

So, what can we do? Recognising our own implicit biases is a first step, who do you see as a leader, what characteristics do you associate with a leader and how does this influence your ability to recruit, develop and promote individuals?

One way to start this journey is through taking an Implicit Association Test. IAT’s measure attitudes and beliefs that you may be unaware off. Harvard University’s Project Implicit has a number of tests you can do online for free, for example the ‘Gender–Career’ test looks at whether you may have an unconscious bias around women in leadership.

Take the test for yourself

Challenging our own preconceptions is hard, but vital if we want to see a change in the workplace. If you are a manager making your team aware of these biases is vital, not in the least to receive a fair assessment of your own performance.

Taking a renewed look at the subjective skills a leader needs is also important. Some firms benefit from a leader who can turn around a financially precarious position, others may need someone who can unify, or who can bring about cultural change, or a leader who can influence external and internal stakeholders. Or indeed a mix of all of the above. No leadership position is the same, and it is easy to be distracted only be the competitive advantage that individual may bring. However, seeing leadership as the complex and varied collection of skills and requirements it is, and with that fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce is much more commercially viable in the long run.

At Acuity we take job specifications extremely seriously and we will work with you to dive deep into the skills and requirements needed for that particular leadership position, challenging you and ourselves in the process.