People expect leaders to have stereotypically masculine traits, according to a new study.
The research, from Andrea Vial of New York University and Jaime Napier of New York University Abu Dhabi, found that men and women think successful leaders should have positive “agentic” traits, such as competence and assertiveness, which are stereotypically masculine.
Positive communal traits, such as kindness and trustworthiness, which are stereotypically feminine, were seen as less important.
“When looking at the trade-off that people make between communal and agency leadership traits, we found both men and women continue to see agentic traits as the hallmark of leadership,” says Vial. “These are traits that are often associated more with men than with women.”
Kindness and other considerate behaviours, in contrast, are viewed by many as good, but ultimately disposable.
“One thing we have learned is that there is an actual trade-off whereby people are willing to give up communal traits to secure higher levels of competence and assertiveness in their ideal leaders,” she tells Cosmos.
On the other hand, men and women – with a stronger finding for women – said that negative agentic traits, such as arrogance and stubbornness, needed to be minimised by leaders. The respondents were not as averse to leaders having negative communal traits, such as shyness and naiveté.
The researchers conducted two separate studies, one in which respondents were asked to pick traits for their “ideal leader” and one in which they were asked to identify traits they thought would help them succeed in randomly assigned leadership or assistant roles. Both studies found that agentic traits were preferred for leadership roles, which the researchers suggest “may illuminate the continued scarcity of women at the very top of organisations”.
Men prioritise agentic traits for leaders significantly more than women do, the first study found.
“Our results suggest that the concentration of men in top decision-making roles such as corporate boards and chief executive offices may be self-sustaining because men in particular tend to devalue more communal styles of leadership – and men are typically the gatekeepers to top organisational positions of prestige and authority,” Vial says.
In addition, the perception that masculine traits are necessary for leadership roles might prevent women from seeking those roles, the researchers posit.
“The idea that one must be highly agentic in order to succeed as a leader could discourage women from pursuing a high-power role – and also discourage men from appointing women in such roles,” Vial said.
The research did not consider whether the respondents believed that competence was “masculine” and kindness was “feminine”, but previous research has indicated that this stereotype exists.
Competence “has been shown that people associate it with men more so than with women in past research”, Vial told Cosmos.
Vial and her colleague point out that some social scientists believe that communality “will define twenty-first century century leaders”. A blend of communal and agentic traits has been shown to characterize effective leadership.
“It is probably true that, in order for women to advance in the world of leadership people need to see women as competent (there is evidence that people have, in fact, come to see women as more and more competent over time),” Vial adds.
“They also need to see women as assertive. And, they need to understand that successful leaders can be communal, which is something management scholars have been saying for years.”
The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Samantha Page is a science journalist based in Spain.
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