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Start Why Stereotypes Undermine Women’s Leadership
04 March 2014

Why Stereotypes Undermine Women’s Leadership

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By Mollie Painter-Morland, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University

An alternative approach to feminism is to insist on respect for the differences between men and women, and an appreciation of the unique role that women could play in the workplace. Feminists who have adopted this approach include important figures like Carol Gilligan, Nancy Hartsock and Nancy Chodorow. These women emphasized the social and psychological specificities of the feminine gender identity as well as the way it shapes individuals’ perspective on their role in society. They argue that women have their own unique “voice” or perspective that should be included within societal discourses. From the perspective of these “feminists of difference,” it was possible to argue that the unique capacities, traits and predispositions of women were “functional” in terms of supplementing gaps that were typically present within the existing leadership corps (Ely and Padavic 2007, 1125).

The problem with this approach is that it tends to set up essentialist dichotomies between men and women. For instance, it contends that women are more caring, more communicative, and more cooperative than men. Surveys, like that used by the International Women’s Forum in 1984, tended to solidify existing gender biases in their categorization of traits that respondents identified within themselves. In these surveys, female traits included being excitable, gentle, emotional, submissive, sentimental, understanding, compassionate, sensitive and dependent. Male traits included being dominant, aggressive, tough, assertive, autocratic, analytical, competitive and independent. Being adaptive, tactful, sincere, conscientious, reliable, predictable, systematic and efficient were considered gender-neutral traits (Rosener 2011, 29).

An unfortunate consequence of this essentialist approach is that women are always associated with the inferior characteristic of the binary opposition: women are emotional, not rational, women are impulsive, not goal-directed, etc. Empirical studies suggest that most respondents regard the various stereotypical male leadership traits as typical of the behavior of a “good manager” (Gmür 2006, 116).

Women are always associated with the inferior characteristic of the binary opposition: women are emotional, not rational, women are impulsive, not goal-directed

Out of the number of ideal managerial traits only two “feminine” traits are considered desirable for managers, i.e. being “adept at dealing with people” and “cooperative.”

All the other ideal traits, like being analytical, competent, confident, convincing, decisive, efficient, fore-sighted, independent etc. are associated with the male stereotype.

You can read more about women and leadership in Mollie Painter Morland’s article ‘Gender, Leadership and Organization’


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