When the New York Times fired Jill Abramson, the paper’s first female executive editor, on May 14, it reignited an ongoing conversation about the challenges facing women in positions of leadership.
Many reports cited Abramson’s management style – and her frequent clashes with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. – as the primary culprits in her dismissal. Her workplace personality has been variously described as “brusque,” “pushy,” “stubborn,” and “uncaring.” A number of critics have pointed out the gendered nature of these descriptors and questioned whether Abramson would be perceived in the same way if she were a man.(a)
Where is the line between a bold, assertive leader and a pushy, bossy one? And how does this line differ for men and women?
An extensive body of research demonstrates that our beliefs about gender affect the way we perceive men and women in leadership roles. In a meta-analysis of 69 previous studies, my colleagues and I found that the characteristics people typically associate with leadership are often stereotypically masculine.1
In particular, people associate leadership with agentic traits – conventionally masculine descriptors such as “assertive,” “forceful,” “dominant,” and “competitive.” These masculine traits are more likely to be viewed as characteristics of a successful leader than stereotypically feminine communal traits like “affectionate,” “compassionate,” “warm,” and “gentle.”(b)
The alignment of the stereotypical characteristics of men and the stereotypical characteristics of good leaders makes it easier for men to be perceived as successful leaders, a phenomenon known as role congruity.2 In contrast, women are perceived as less fit for leadership because traditionally feminine characteristics are less consistent with our perceptions of successful leaders.
Women thus face a double bind: When they conform to feminine stereotypes and behave communally, they are perceived as weak leaders. When they conform to stereotypes of “good leaders” and behave agentically, they are penalized for bucking gender norms.
The good news is that the cultural concept of leadership is changing, as social skills – which are often perceived as feminine – become a more important part of what we expect from leaders. Our review included studies covering the period from 1973 to 2010, and we found that perceptions of leadership have become less exclusively masculine and more androgynous over time.(c) This shift may be due in part to the looser and flatter organizational structure of modern companies, which necessitates more teamwork and interaction. Nevertheless, men continue to associate leadership with masculinity more strongly than women do.
While this progress is encouraging, many women leaders who act agentically still face backlash for behaving outside of their expected gender roles.3 The “positive” cultural stereotypes of women as “nice” and “caring” turn into harmful limitations when women who display more agentic qualities are seen as stepping out of bounds.(d) For example, people perceive women, but not men, as less likable and less competent when they engage in self-promotion4 or express anger.5
Speaking up and holding the floor in group conversations are also agentic behaviors. Both men and women rate talkative, opinionated female CEOs less favorably than equivalently talkative and opinionated male CEOs, and the female CEOs are perceived less favorably when talkative than when quiet.6 In another study, women who spoke tentatively in a debate were more likely than confident women to persuade men of their position (although they were less likely to persuade women).7
It is unlikely that media commentators, or even Sulzberger and Abramson, can determine the ways that gender influenced the firing. But there is ample evidence that our perceptions of leadership are aligned with traditional definitions of masculinity, and that women often face backlash when they cross these lines and behave assertively, competitively, or in other agentic ways.(e) Women leaders navigate a labyrinth of hidden biases that can affect their careers in subtle, often unacknowledged ways.8 One silver lining in Abramson’s firing is that it has opened up discussion on some of these lingering prejudices.
- Anne M. Koenig, Alice H. Eagly, Abigail A. Mitchell, and Tina Ristikari (2011) “Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms,” Psychological Bulletin, 137(4): 616-642.
- Alice H. Eagly and Steven J. Karau (2002) “Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders,” Psychological Review, 109(3): 573-598.
- Laurie A. Rudman, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Julie E. Phelan, and Sanne Nauts (2008) “Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48: 165-179.
- Laurie A. Rudman (1998) “Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3): 629-645.
- Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann (2008) “Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace,” Psychological Science, 19(3): 268-275.
- Victoria L. Brescoll (2011) “Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly 56(4): 622-641.
- Linda L. Carli (1990) “Gender, Language, and Influence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5): 941-951.
- For an overview of the obstacles faced by women pursuing leadership positions, as well as concrete suggestions to overcome them, see: Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli (2007) Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- (a) Adding to questions about whether sexism was a factor in Abramson’s firing, a Times spokesperson admitted that her decision to hire a lawyer in connection with her request for pay equal to that of her male predecessor, Bill Keller, was a “contributing factor” in the decision to let her go.
- (b) Agentic traits can be manifested through behaviors such as self-promotion, expressions of ambition, and visual dominance – that is, looking directly at one’s conversation partner while speaking more than while listening. Communal behaviors include demonstrating agreement and requesting others’ input.
- (c) These shifting perceptions of leadership are consistent with changes in people’s stated preferences about the gender of their bosses. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 35% of Americans prefer a male boss, 23% prefer a female boss, and the remainder indicate no preference. In Gallup’s 1953 poll, 66% of respondents said they would rather work for a man and only 5% preferred a female supervisor.
- (d) Research shows that this type of backlash can also affect men, who may be disliked and perceived unfavorably if they behave very communally.
- (e) One effort to shift this dynamic comes in the form of Lean In’s Ban Bossy campaign, which aims to combat words like “bossy” and “pushy” that are often used to penalize agentic women.