Gender Stereotypes in the Executive Suite

New research shows female bosses can be at a disadvantage when using both kindness and toughness

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By Jack Chiang

From Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to management articles in major media, the topic of the female executive and gender stereotypes in executives has become a major focus of public discourse. However, what many of these discussions lack is an investigation of why certain gender prejudices exist and what strategies executives – of both sexes – can use to overcome preconceptions of their abilities and take control of the boardroom.

In my research "Gender makes the difference: The moderating role of leader gender on the relationship between leadership styles and subordinate performance" in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, my colleagues and I investigated if a manager demonstrating behavior congruent or incongruent to his/her gender had a more negative or positive impact on the performance of subordinates.

While the actual spectrum of gender-congruent behavior is quite complicated, we can summarize gender-based leadership styles as follows. The natural leadership style for male leaders is authoritarian, being a strong authority and controlling subordinates while demanding complete obedience. For female leaders, the natural behavior is benevolence, having a holistic concern for subordinates’ families and personal well-being.

We found that natural leadership styles for males and females were not always beneficial. For males, authoritarianism is natural but has negative consequences. We suggest that male leaders supplement their leadership style with a positive deviant behavior; we found benevolence was one such positive deviant behavior for males.

For females, benevolence is a positive leadership style but they need to complement this with other behaviors that positively deviate from the "female" expectation. From our study, we suggest that females be determinant, rather than authoritarian, in decision making. Importantly, authoritarian behavior is not congruent with female expectation, and can thus create even more of a negative impact for female leaders. However, determinant is a style that is a positive deviant from female expectation that still demonstrates decisiveness. 

Our research was conducted in Taiwan, where both authoritarian and benevolent leadership are prevalent. We looked at nearly 500 employees from R&D firms, which had male-dominated and female-dominated work forces, and the customer service sector of a bank, a female-dominated workforce.

The results show that the relationship between authoritarian leadership behavior and subordinate performance is less negative for male than for female leaders. We can explain this finding as following the idea of authoritarian behavior being congruent to males and not for females. However, this connection with congruence is not always applicable. Our second major finding was that male leaders experience a greater positive relationship between benevolent leadership behavior and subordinate performance than female leaders. As such, this shows that the positive deviation from gender roles and congruent leadership behaviors can lead to better job performance in subordinates.

Overall, our findings were less telling about the female executive. In fact, our research illustrated that demonstrating both authoritarian and benevolent leadership styles were a disadvantage to female leaders compared with male counterparts. However, considering the future of the female executive, we cannot accept this as a practical truth.

We attribute the prejudice toward female leaders to both a descriptive and a prescriptive cultural bias. The descriptive bias is that people underestimate women's potential for leadership and the prescriptive bias is that people view women's leadership as it relates to male stereotyped behavior. Therefore, while some research suggests this prescriptive bias towards women as evidence to behave only with caring and empathy, our results lead us to encourage female executives to positively deviate from this expectation.

We recommend leaders balance their natural leadership behaviors with positive deviant leadership styles. In this way, female leaders should be benevolent, so as to be congruent with their female stereotyped image in public, but must also be decisive in decision making, so as to demonstrate behaviors that diverge from social expectation in a positive way.

Jack Chiang is Assistant Professor of Organizational Management at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management.