Gender Stereotypes and the Double Binds for Women in Leadership

Despite the advances women have made within the employment sector, they remain a minority within the top leadership positions. In 2008, while both genders were equally represented at the managerial and professional levels, women comprised only 6% of Fortune 500 Top Earners and 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs.*

Among the several factors that encumber women’s ability to rise professionally, Professor Madeline Heilman of New York University and Professor Alice Eagly of Northwestern University both assert that gender stereotypes are one of the culprits behind the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions and in male dominated fields. In their presentations at WAPPP’s Gender in Negotiation and Decision Making Seminar Series in the spring of 2009, they each illustrated how gender stereotypes create “double binds” for professional women that perpetuate biased evaluations of their competency and leadership abilities and hinder their professional trajectories.

Current stereotypes view men as “agentic”: they take charge, get things done and are achievement oriented. In contrast, women are stereotypically viewed as “communal” – they take care of others, are attuned to others’ needs, and are relationship-oriented. Furthermore, the attributes associated with leaders (e.g. self-confidence, assertiveness, take-charge, problem-solver, inspirational, risk taker, and action oriented) and with managers (such as leadership potential, self-confidence, and ability to take initiative) are more congruent with stereotypical male behavior. Heilman and Eagly highlight that there is an incompatibility or “lack of fit” between the behavioral expectations and connotations of women and of competent professionals and leaders.

Heilman warns of the double bind which successful professional women are likely to encounter. Gender stereotypes can simultaneously lead to expectations that women are ill-equipped to handle jobs and roles traditionally held by men, and induce disapproval and social penalties for women who are successful in these male gender-typed positions. For example, research has shown that in the workplace when women’s successes were not clearly indicated, women were seen as less competent. However, when their success was clearly defined and acknowledged as competent, women were seen as more unlikable and were personally derogated.

In follow-up studies that further examined the role of gender stereotypes, Heilman found that although women were penalized for success, the negative effects were limited to successes in a male gender-typed position. This finding supports the idea that penalization is a reaction to stereotype-based norm violations; success for a woman is okay unless it is in an area deemed “off limits” for her. The negative evaluations women receive for violating gender prescriptions can be mitigated somewhat by communal behavior along with successful performance. This finding provides an indication of hope for successful women within male gender-typed professions.

Eagly’s research also describes the double bind for women in leadership positions. In order to overcome doubts about agentic ability, women must perform exceptionally well; yet very accomplished, assertive women may be seen as lacking communion and thus are not well liked. To satisfy demand for communion, women can display warmth and niceness, but warm women may be seen as weak, incompetent, and lacking authority. To illustrate this point, Eagly provided the example of Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign. Clinton was criticized for being too cold. Yet when her emotion was revealed on camera, it was perceived as weak or an intentional media stunt.

Eagly’s evidence-based recommendations for women were to blend agency and communion, and to build social capital. Regarding work-family issues, she suggested that one keep in mind the long-term consequences in well-being and health that come from “having it all.” She recommended that organizations increase awareness of psychological drivers of prejudice and discrimination, establish objective performance evaluations, ensure a critical mass of women (avoid “solo” women situations), help shore up women’s social capital, give women line management experience, and establish family-friendly human resources practices.

Eagly also provided some promising news in terms of leadership styles; the definition of good leadership is shifting towards “transformational leadership” which includes inspiring, role modeling, team-building, stimulating creativity, developing others’ skills, and collaborating. She explains that this more flexible model of leadership is needed as modern businesses are more dynamic institutions that are always changing and interacting. Eagly emphasizes, however, that transformational leadership is not more feminine, but is less masculine and the changes will take place over time.

Hannah Riley Bowles, Associate Professor of Public Policy, chaired WAPPP’s Gender in Decision Making and Negotiation series in spring 2009, which was cosponsored by the HKS Center for Public Leadership.

This series is made possible in part through the generous support of the Abigail E. Disney Fund.

*Alice Eagly, “Through the Labyrinth: Women as Leaders,” presentation at Harvard Kennedy School, 2.5.09

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Professor Madeline Heilman, Professor of Psychology, New York University presenting at WAPPP seminar in March 2009.

LTC Angelia D. Farnell, USA, HKS National Security Fellow listens to Alice Eagly's WAPPP seminar, "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders"


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