Female leaders and the double bind: Why leadership styles that work for men might not work for women

Wednesday, June 8, 2021

Kara Arnold, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s series marking the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

The double bind is “a situation in which a person must choose between equally unsatisfactory alternatives: a punishing and inescapable dilemma,” according to a Catalyst study, “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t.

What does the research evidence suggest about why there aren’t more women in senior leadership roles? Whether we consider politics, corporate leadership, educational institutions, and even volunteer organizations, the higher up you go, the fewer women you find. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg points out, some of this may be due to choices that individual women make. But, looking only at individual choice does not tell the whole story. Despite equal aspirations to senior leadership positions, and equal leadership capacity and effectiveness, scholars like Alice Eagly and Linda Carli have shown that women experience slower rates of promotion to executive leadership positions than men. There are strong societal forces at play here; and in terms of promotion to the highest levels, these forces conspire against women.

Catherine Loughlin and I have been involved in a Social Science and Humanities Research Council- funded program of research studying perceptions of transformational leadership behaviour, and how perception is affected by the sex of the leader enacting the behaviour. Transformational leaders are those who create valuable and positive change in line with a vision, enhance employee morale and motivation, solve problems creatively, and provide support and skill development opportunities to their employees.

One important thing that transformational leaders do is provide support for their employees. The supportive aspect of transformational leadership is labelled ‘individual consideration’ by many researchers. Transformational leadership has been shown to be highly effective in terms of outcomes such as performance, satisfaction, and engaging employees to put forth extra effort. Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first African-American to be appointed President of an ‘Ivy League’ university (Brown) in the United States, is one example of a female transformational leader. Another example is Mary Kay Ash – founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics.

There are small sex differences in the frequency of reported engagement in transformational leadership behaviour.  Alice Eagly and her colleagues have conducted research that suggests women exhibit positive transformational leadership behaviours more frequently than men. While women have made gains in management – in Canada women fill approximately 36 percent of management positions – they still account for only approximately 5 percent of the top leadership roles in most countries, including Canada. How is it that women can be more effective leaders than men, yet also be less likely to reach the highest leadership positions in organizations? We have looked at the influence that sex role stereotypes play in the answer to this question.

Sex role stereotypes are deeply engrained generalizations about how women and men actually are and about how they should be; these stereotypes suggest that women should be communal –   gentle, supportive, caring, focused on relationships; while men should be instrumental – decisive, tough, assertive; focused on getting things done. Because sex role stereotypes (communal) and leader stereotypes (instrumental) are incongruent for women, this factor contributes to the slow advancement of women into top leadership roles. Sex role stereotypes are firmly entrenched and applied in the evaluation and promotion of female leaders without conscious intent or awareness causing biased evaluation of potential female leaders.

Imagine a situation where an employee is feeling stress due to time pressure, and this employee is thinking of taking a leave of absence in order to deal with their stress. Now think about the various responses a leader could take with this employee. A leader might be very supportive, might spend some time coaching this employee in terms of focusing on their strengths, could give them some time off to recuperate and could reassure them that their workload would be covered while they were away.

Alternatively, the leader could be unsupportive, refuse time off, and basically tell the employee to ‘pick up the pace and stop complaining’. How would you evaluate the leader in each case in terms of their competence and their promotability? Would your evaluation differ if the leader were male versus female? We conducted an experiment in order to assess this very question and the findings begin to shed light on the subtle ways that leader sex influences others’ perception of leadership behaviour; and the career consequences of this perception.

Utilizing an experimental method and paradigm similar to Madeline Heilman and her colleagues, we conducted a study with 120 senior public sector leaders. Under the guise of investigating the effectiveness of 360° feedback on performance appraisal, participants read a fictitious employee profile portraying an effective manager (i.e. they exhibited good performance) who was either male or female, and they displayed either high, low or no information about individual consideration. The scenarios described above are from this study – the supportive leader being high in consideration; and the unsupportive leader being low.

In the study we found that both male and female leaders are expected to be individually considerate, and are penalized for not engaging in such behaviour. We found that the sex of the participants doing the rating made no difference. However, in terms of competency ratings (being perceived as competent, productive, effective, and decisive) as well as reward recommendation (salary increases, bonuses, promotion or working on a high profile project), only male managers seem to benefit from this behaviour. Again, there was no sex difference in terms of our participants – women were equally likely to rate the male and female leaders differently in this case. We found a positive effect on competency ratings and reward allocation only for male leaders engaging in individually considerate transformational leadership. In other words, men benefited from engaging in individual consideration, women did not. We believe that this finding begins to show the subtle issues that women aspiring to leadership positions face – as the Catalyst report is so aptly named – ‘Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t’.

One important take away from our work is that our current leadership theories are not gender neutral. Most, including transformational leadership theory, were developed based on male leaders. One reason to question gender differences in the evaluation of transformational leaders is that the development of transformational leadership theory was based on male participants in a masculine context and simply assumed valid for women. Although subsequent research has utilized more balanced samples and outlined alternative gender-balanced components, transformational leadership theory is utilized as originally developed in many studies.

Another important take away is that organizations should think about these forces and how they may counteract their best intentions in terms of training and development. North American organizations spend over fifty billion dollars a year developing leadership capacity. Despite this substantial investment, concerns about leadership shortages are prevalent, and competition for talented leaders is increasingly intense (McKinsey report).

Why this discrepancy between investment in leadership training and the shortage of personnel needed to fill leadership positions? Our research suggests that leadership behaviours are not accurately identified and rewarded in all candidates. Leadership training can influence individual leader behaviour, but organizations also need to consider how individual behaviour is perceived and evaluated. There appears to be a substantial difference between what an individual actually does, what organizational decision-makers perceive them as doing, and subsequent evaluation of that individual’s leadership potential.

We are all – both women and men – subject to having our perceptions influenced by sex role stereotypes prevailing in society. Hence, the answer to the question ‘Why aren’t there more women in leadership roles?’ is complex. One piece of the puzzle is stereotypes and their influence on perception of behaviour. We will be continuing our work in this area with future studies investigating the actions organizations can take to counteract these subconscious forces. Much like the curtains put up in orchestra auditions in order to bring more women into orchestras, our future work seeks to uncover ways that organizations can provide blind ‘leadership’ auditions for women and level the playing field in terms of the evaluation of leaders.

When a leader is supportive they deserve the same positive evaluation regardless of whether they are female or male. Given the challenges facing organizations today, transformational leadership is necessary. Organizations cannot afford to lose the opportunity to recognize these leaders regardless of their sex.

Kara Arnold is an associate professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Newfoundland.