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date: 05 April 2020

Is There a Female Leadership Advantage?

Summary and Keywords

Women have historically been underrepresented in leadership positions across private and public organizations around the globe. Gender inequality and gender discrimination remain very real challenges for women workers in general, and especially so for women striving for leadership positions. Yet organizational research suggests that female leaders may bring a unique constellation of leadership-related traits, attributes, and behaviors to the workplace that may provide advantages to their organizations. Specific cultural and organizational work contexts may facilitate or inhibit a female leadership advantage. Reaping the benefits of female leadership relies on an organization’s ability to combat the numerous barriers female leaders face that male leaders often do not, including gender-based discrimination, implicit bias, and unfair performance evaluations. Despite these challenges, the literature suggests that a reasoned consideration of the positive aspects of women’s leadership is not only warranted but is instructive for organizations hoping to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.

Keywords: leadership, gender, stereotypes, discrimination, sex differences, women’s leadership, glass cliff, diversity, inclusion

Over a decade ago, women occupied a mere 2.6% of Fortune 500 chief executive officer (CEO) positions and represented only 4% of the CEOs and heads of boards in the European Union (Eagly & Carli, 2007). Unfortunately, the picture has not changed much since then; in 2016 women accounted for only 4% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies despite constituting 25% of senior executives and managers (Catalyst, 2019). Although the percentage of women managers has risen in many places around the world, it appears that gender equality remains an elusive goal, as age-old beliefs that men are more qualified than women for leadership (Ayman & Korabik, 2010) die hard. The largest representation of women in corporate boards is in Western European countries with quotas requiring a minimum representation, such as Iceland (48%), Norway (37%), and France (30%; Deloitte, 2015). Recent work on implicit theories of leadership finds that traditional associations of leadership with men (“think manager, think male,” Schein, Mueller, Lituchy, & Kiu, 1996, p. 34) still persists in terms of people’s naïve conceptions of leadership (Offermann & Coats, 2018).

Yet some authors (i.e., Book, 2000; Helgesen, 1995; Wilson, 2004) have argued that women may, in fact, be better leaders than men. Pointing to changes in organizations who have moved from traditional “command-and-control” models of leadership to models focusing more on collaboration and teamwork, these and other authors suggest that demand is increasing in the modern workplace for skills that favor women leaders over men. Research suggesting that companies with more women executives had better financial performance (i.e., Catalyst, 2004; Dezso & Ross, 2012) has further spurred interest in women’s potential advantages as leaders. What does the preponderance of data say? The purpose of this article is to provide an integrative review of the evidence on gender differences in leadership and determine whether, when, and how women may have an advantage over men in leadership roles. The article begins by examining the so-called “business case” for women leaders, then discusses gender differences in leadership-related traits, attributes, and behaviors, as well as some specific contexts that advantage women leaders, and finally looks at how organizations can best reap the value of women in leadership roles by addressing some of the unique barriers that women face relative to men in terms of achieving and succeeding in those roles.

The “Business Case” for Women Leaders

Although a strong moral case can be made for putting aside stereotypical prejudices and choosing leaders based on their capabilities and talents rather than membership of a particular demographic group, around the 1990s, efforts began to be made to make a case to organizations that increasing the diversity of their talent pools was not only necessary based on demographic projections but actually favorable to them in terms of competitive advantage and organizational performance. This so-called “business case” for diversity continues to be discussed today, as researchers attempt to understand the economic value of diversity. Companies who are best able to hire and maintain a diverse workforce are expected to outperform those who do not (Dezso & Ross, 2012; Glass & Cook, 2018; Krishnan & Park, 2005; Shrader, Blackburn, & Iles, 1997). A particular focus of this business case revolves around the effects of increasing the proportion of women in management and senior leadership roles.

In 2004, Catalyst produced a widely cited research paper linking corporate financial performance with the gender diversity of corporate boards. Using publicly available data from 353 Fortune 500 companies, they found that the companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams reported better financial performance than the companies with the lowest representation of women. These results held both for return on equity and total return to shareholders, which were 35% and 34% higher, respectively, in companies with more women in senior leadership. Although the authors were careful not to claim causation, results were heralded by others as support for simply adding more women in senior leadership roles, particularly on corporate boards. An alternative conclusion might well be that companies who, prior to 2004, were progressive enough to be promoting women into their top management teams differed from those who did not in a variety of ways. These firms may well have been those providing men and women with equal opportunities to rise to such positions and selecting the best based on performance and talent rather than gender, which left these companies with competent management teams that were gender diverse.

Nonetheless, the reaction to Catalyst’s data spread widely, encouraging some European countries to pass laws mandating gender quotas for corporate boards. For example, French law required listed firms to reserve 40% of board seats for women by 2017; Norway and Spain have similar laws, and the European Parliament said such quotas should be used throughout the European Union (The Economist, 2011). Recent evidence from examining ten years of quotas for women on corporate boards in Europe shows that although people’s worst fears about adding women to boards have not materialized, neither has imposing quotas done much so far to either boost corporate performance or help women at lower levels of organizations as was hoped (The Economist, 2018). After ten years, quotas had had no effect in Norway of changing the representation of women in management in the companies where board quotas applied. A study in France suggests that although quotas for women led to changes in the process of boards’ decision-making, it did not change the decisions themselves. Rather, the researchers propose that the processes changed because the new members were likely to be outsiders (The Economist, 2018).While quotas may be one way to expedite closing of the gender gap in women’s board representation in Western Europe, research is still needed in order to understand why women are underrepresented in the first place.

Beyond the objective performance increases that have been associated with having more women on boards, organizations interested in other types of performance beyond the purely financial might benefit from women leaders making top-level decisions. Meta-analytic findings from 87 independent samples collected from multiple countries, ranging from Bangladesh to Nigeria, show that female board representation increases a firm’s engagement in socially responsible business practices and social reputation (Byron & Post, 2016). This favorable effect of women board members may be especially strong in organizations that operate internationally, as these firms serve countries with a diverse range of gender parity.

In a recent critique, Adams (2016) delineated three main issues that she argues must be resolved before conclusions can be made about the performance advantage of women on boards. First, there is a lack of the rigorous scientific findings needed to support descriptive studies such as those published by Catalyst, because it is nearly impossible to study the impact of women on boards if gender-balanced boards do not already exist. Second, the glass-ceiling-breaking women included in these studies are likely more determined, resourceful, and achieving compared to the general population of women employees. Thus, there is the question of whether results from studies of today’s top women leaders would also apply to other women who enter the same jobs. Finally, she argues that it would be unwise to make any causal inferences from studies that attempt to relate the gender composition of boards to firm performance. As this relationship may be confounded by a number of unmeasured factors.

One methodological factor that may be important to consider in these studies is the nature of the performance outcome being assessed. A recent meta-analysis examining the effects of women’s representation in organizational leadership roles on financial performance also indicated that women’s leadership can positively affect firm performance, particularly in terms of sales (Hoobler, Masterson, Nkomo, & Michel, 2018), although the size of the effect is often quite small. The authors suggest that the particular impact on sales performance may be because sales- and growth-focused organizations may be more open to non–status quo ideas and diverse persons compared to other types of organizations. The presence of a female CEO in particular was more likely to relate to financial performance in organizational cultures that were more gender egalitarian, suggesting potentially important context effects.

In addition to the three issues outlined by Adams (2016), work by Parker and Ogilvie (1996) and Parker (2001) highlights the limitations of assuming women leaders are a relatively homogeneous group. Parker and colleagues argue that this Anglo-American perspective ignores the different experiences of women, such as those due to race and class. In order to assess the extent to which “the business case” for female leaders applies beyond Western, industrialized, educated, rich, and democratic populations, more research and theory is needed (Ospina & Foldy, 2009). Making the business case for gender diversity in leadership has itself been criticized for focusing exclusively on the financial advantages of bringing more women into leadership roles (Hoobler et al., 2018) when there are other potential benefits as well. More work needs to be undertaken to examine how leadership diversity benefits employees in other ways than financial performance, for example, including things like psychological well-being and retention of employees. However, there is work suggesting that the presence of women in organizational leadership roles can affect aspects of the organizational climate for women. Work by Huffman, Cohen, and Pearlman (2010) found that having women in management positions is positively related to gender integration at nonmanagerial levels as well—that is, making the workplace more gender equitable at all levels. The idea that having women in leadership roles benefits other women in the organization is also supported by recent work looking at Fortune 500 companies. A study by Glass and Cook (2018) showed that gender diversity in leadership teams was not only associated with better equity outcomes, but that women CEOs were more likely to champion diversity practices and equity issues. Their findings also highlighted the importance of having a diverse board with influential women directors, which supported McDonald and Westphal’s argument (2013) that influential women can legitimize the contributions of other women. Arvate, Galilea, and Todescat (2018) found similar results in a study of female mayors in Brazil, who have the power to influence hiring decisions at lower levels of their organization. Results from 8.3 million organizations across 5,600 Brazilian municipalities showed female mayors used their decision-making power to reduce the gender imbalance in their organizations, leading these to be more gender balanced compared to those run by male mayors. Some of the differences in the gender composition of lower-level public organizations were linked to women mayors’ positive influence on the women leaders at lower levels of the government. Thus, not only did the women leaders make decisions that balanced the gender composition of their own organizations, but they also inspired other leaders to do the same.

These findings from Arvate et al. (2018) in Brazil and Huffman et al. (2010) in the United States also serve to debunk the “queen bee” phenomenon (Derks, Van Laar, Ellemers, & De Groot, 2011; Derks, Van Laar, & Ellemers, 2016; Drexler, 2013), the stereotype that female leaders become highly competitive in order to secure their spot in male-dominated organizations, assimilating to the male-oriented culture, distancing themselves from other women in the organization, and actively harming other women’s chances for leadership. Arvate et al. (2018) conclude that the empirical evidence actually provides an opposite picture.

Thus, there is considerable evidence demonstrating the advantages of the greater inclusion of women at senior levels of organizational leadership. Unfortunately, most studies finding a female advantage are unable to tell us why these effects are found. Conjectures range from the theory that women’s status as traditional outsiders enables them to bring new perspectives, to the idea that women can make unique contributions in terms of personality or leadership style. Clearly, making leadership roles equally open to men and women broadens the talent pool available to organizations. As women increasingly make up larger portions of a company’s management talent, failing to consider them for senior roles becomes particularly limiting. To explore some of the possible reasons for women’s unique contributions to business success, the literature on gender differences in leadership-related traits and behaviors is examined below.

Gender and Leadership Attributes

The Big Five

One of the oldest of the leadership approaches focuses on the study of the leadership traits associated with leader success. Most modern trait research has focused on the Big Five personality characteristics: extraversion, neuroticism/emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (Sackett, Lievens, Van Iddekinge, & Kuncel, 2017). A recent study, using a sample of over 9,000 managers and 76,000 nonmanagers, of the Big Five characteristics, plus the additional traits of assertiveness, optimism, work, drive, and customer-service orientation, found that managers had significantly higher scores on all these traits than the nonmanagers, and the traits all correlated with manager’s career satisfaction (Lounsbury, Sundstrom, Gibson, Loveland, & Drost, 2016). Gender differences in terms of traits related to leader emergence including conscientiousness, emotional stability, and extraversion, were smaller among executives than nonexecutives. Similar traits distinguished executives and nonexecutives across genders, with both men and women executives demonstrating a leader personality characterized by assertiveness, strategic thinking, and decisiveness.

The extent to which personality research findings, especially those associated with openness, can be generalized to non-Western cultures is debated (Zeinoun, Daouk‐Öyry, Choueiri, & van de Vijver, 2015). However, previous research has found that women report higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness across most nations (Schmitt, Realo, Voracek, & Allik, 2008). A meta-analysis by Judge, Bono, Ilies, and Gerhardt (2002) found that neuroticism (low emotional stability) reacted negatively to leader emergence and effectiveness, whereas extraversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness all had small-to-moderate associations with leader emergence and effectiveness, with agreeableness also related to effectiveness. A comparison of these results suggests that women as a group may have a leadership advantage in terms of enhanced extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, while having a disadvantage in their higher neuroticism.

However, more recent trait research suggests that even presumably less desirable traits like neuroticism can have “bright” sides (Judge, Piccolo, & Kosalka, 2009). In the case of neuroticism, individuals with high levels of emotional stability may be seen by followers as too reserved and apathetic, lacking in emotional connection to followers, whereas those able to express genuine emotions may be seen as more credible (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). In addition, leaders with high emotional stability have been shown to make less use of the effective transformational leadership characteristic of inspirational appeal as an influence tactic (Cable & Judge, 2003). Future research is needed to determine whether the effective management of workplace emotions may be a potential source of female advantage.

Achievement Orientation

Another personal characteristic that has been examined in relation to gender and leadership is a person’s orientation to achievement, particularly in terms of competition. In her model of connective leadership, Jean Lipman-Blumen (2000; 1992) and her colleagues (Lipman-Blumen, Handley-Isaksen, & Leavitt, 1983; Lipman-Blumen & Leavitt, 1976) proposed nine different types of achievement orientation, reflecting characteristic ways that individuals approach achievement and the satisfaction they receive from it, arguing that these styles relate to sex-role socialization and sex-linked occupational choices and aspirations, including aspiring to leadership roles. Work by Offermann and Beil (1992) showed that college-student women leaders showed profiles more similar to those of their male leader peers than to those of female peers not in leadership roles. The major difference between women and men leaders was in the lower level of satisfaction from competition reported by women leaders, with women noting less interest in “beating” others. This supports other work suggesting that men compete more than women and have more favorable views of competition (see Carli & Eagly, 2018).

However, other research submits that competitiveness may be contextually determined, with tasks related to stereotypically feminine domains generating more competitiveness among women while other domains generate greater male competitiveness (Wieland & Sarin, 2012). Where competitiveness is a requirement in stereotypically male content domains, women may still be at a disadvantage. Traditional male-dominated organizations may have emphasized competition in leader selection to the detriment of women, creating the gender gap in leadership emergence found by Eagly and Karau (1991). More recent evidence suggests that this gap has been slowly decreasing over time, particularly in business settings, but continues to exist (Badura, Grijalva, Newman, Yan, & Jeon, 2018). One reason the gap has narrowed may be a reassessment that has taken place of the virtue of competitiveness in today’s organizations. As collaboration rather than competitiveness becomes a more sought-after commodity, and teamwork overtakes individual tasks as the backbone of performance, competitiveness may be far less relevant than the ability to work productively and cooperatively alongside of others. In these more collaborative environments, it is possible that women may have an advantage.

Trait and Attribute Expectations of Leaders

In addition to considering the actual traits and attributes of women and men leaders, it is important to consider the views of others in the workplace as to what traits they think leaders should have in order to be effective. In her classic work, Virginia Schein suggested that when people think of managers, they “think male” (Schein, 1973). It is well known that people have naïve and implicit conceptualizations of what leaders are like in terms of their traits and attributes; these are often called the implicit leadership theories (ILTs). ILTs have been shown to affect people’s behavioral expectations of leaders (Lord, Foti, & De Vader, 1984) as well as the quality of the relationship between leader and follower (Topakas, Martin, & Epitropaki, 2015). Work by this article’s first author and her colleagues examining the content of people’s ILTs identified eight ILT factors: sensitivity, dedication, tyranny, charisma, strength, masculinity, and intelligence (Offermann, Kennedy, & Wirtz, 1994), which indicates that when people naïvely consider leadership, they do indeed “think male.” Epitropaki and Martin (2004) similarly found masculinity represented in ILTs ten years later. Most recently, a follow-up study by Offermann and Coats (2018) found those same original eight factors, including masculinity, to be remarkably stable, while also identifying a ninth factor of creativity. Still, the extraction of a masculinity factor in this modern sample suggests the stubborn persistence of a pro-masculinity bias in leadership perceptions and expectations, although this construal has been found to be endorsed more strongly by men than by women (Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Risikari, 2011).

Examination of the most common factors people implicitly ascribe to leaders suggests much that should be positive for women leaders. The first and most significant factor, sensitivity, clearly plays to what is commonly seen as a stereotypically female advantage. The desire for leaders to be sensitive, understanding, warm, forgiving, helpful, and sympathetic is certainly consistent with views of women, typically more so than with men. Similarly, women have the advantage of being seen as less tyrannical than men—a good thing. Charisma (i.e., idealized influence) has been found to be more associated with women than with men (Eagly, Johannsen-Schmidt, & van Engen, 2003). However, the addition of creativity to the original ILT factors may not be such good news for women, as a recent study found that “out-of-the-box” creativity was more strongly associated with traditionally male characteristics, that men’s ideas are seen as more ingenious than women’s, and that the same output is viewed as more creative when it is attributed to a man than when it is attributed to a woman (Proudfoot, Kay, & Koval, 2015). This creativity bias against women may be a potential explanation for the small percentages of women in high-technology fields, as well as the difficulties women have reported in being accepted in those occupations (NSF & NCSES, 2015).

It should be noted that much of the literature investigating differences between men and women in leadership fails to distinguish between the many differences among women as a group and among men as a group, in their approaches to, and success in, leadership roles. Far more work is needed on intersectionality, that is, the interactive impact of multiple identities, in terms of its impact on leadership perceptions, development, and outcomes (Sanchez-Hucles & Davis, 2010). In terms of paths to leadership, trajectories of Black and White women can show significant differences that should be acknowledged (Cook & Glass, 2014; Smith & Nkomo, 2003). Further, there is evidence that women of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are subject to differing stereotypical assumptions and prejudices that relate to their prospects for organizational leadership. As noted by Rosette, Koval, Ma, and Livingston (2016), Black women may be perceived as dominant but not competent, while White women may be seen as communal, but not particularly dominant or competent, and Asian women may be perceived as competent but passive. Any of these perceptions can affect one’s prospects for leadership roles. Rosette and Livingston (2012) present evidence that Black women leaders can experience “double jeopardy,” with more negative evaluations than either Black men or White women in situations of organizational failure. Under organizational success, there were no differences between these three groups, although all three were still seen less favorably than White men. On the other hand, there is evidence that Black women may be less likely to experience the “agency penalty” experienced by White women who violate expectations by exhibiting behaviors that appear too dominant, competitive, or assertive (Livingston, Rosette, & Washington, 2012). Thus, it is important for future research on gender and leadership to consider intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity, and culture in examining the organizational prospects of women leaders.

In sum, approaches to leadership examining traits and attributes have shown relationships between personal characteristics and leadership outcomes, which suggests that some personal attributes do increase the likelihood of attaining a leader role and/or being successful in it. Some of these may favor women, others may favor men. However, one of the clear lessons learned from the leadership literature is that no set of traits guarantees effectiveness in all situations or for all outcome criteria (Yukl, 2013). The real advantage, both for women and men, is to have the requisite traits and attributes needed in a particular organizational context.

Effective Leadership Behaviors

Leadership Styles

Currently, the most dominant theoretical approach to leadership in terms of published research in top journals is that of the “new leadership,” a term encompassing transformational leadership and other neo-charismatic approaches (Antonakis, Bastardoz, Liu, & Schriesheim, 2014; Dinh et al., 2014). The construct of transformational leadership (TFL) was introduced by James McGregor Burns in 1978, and developed further by Bernard Bass in 1985, and held that transformational leaders inspire followers to rise above self-interest for the greater good, creating high levels of effort and performance. TFL is composed of the dimensions of idealized influence (originally called charisma), inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation, with contingent reward, management by exception, and laissez-faire leadership making up the less effective transactional styles, which are also measured in most studies of TFL. Subsequent studies showed that contingent reward typically clusters with the TFL factors as another positive leadership style (e.g., Tejeda, Scandura, & Pillai, 2001). This theory has been supported in several meta-analyses as related to dimensions of effectiveness (Judge & Piccolo, 2004; Lowe, Kroeck, & Sivasubramaniam, 1996).

In their highly cited meta-analysis examining differences between men and women on TFL, Alice Eagly and her colleagues (Eagly et al., 2003) showed that women are often rated significantly more highly than men on the desirable TFL characteristics of idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and contingent reward, and lower than men on the less desirable management-by-exception and laissez-faire leadership styles. Although statistically significant, these differences are relatively small. Nonetheless, these findings appear to be stable, and were replicated in studies by Antonakis, Avolio, and Sivasubramaniam (2003) and Desvaux and Devillard (2008). Most recently, meta-analytic work by Paustian-Underdahl, Sockbeson, Hall, and Halliday (2018) found continuing support for the premise that women are rated significantly more highly than men on the positively regarded factors of idealized influence, individualized consideration, and contingent reward, while men were not rated more highly for any main effect. Thus, there is considerable evidence indicating that women leaders use more of the TFL leader behaviors that are associated with better leadership than men do, and rely less on those associated with poorer outcomes than men. This is a distinct leadership advantage for women.

Other meta-analytic work on leadership styles proposes that women tend to use more democratic and participative styles of leadership, whereas men favor more autocratic and directive styles (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). The authors put forward that women’s less frequent use of autocratic styles might stem from gender norms discouraging autocratic behavior in women. Whether this difference in democratic and autocratic style choices favors one gender or another likely depends on the organizational context. Vroom and Jago’s (1988) well-known normative model of leader decision-making suggests that depending on the nature of the situation, different behaviors are prescribed, with some situations requiring more autocratic behaviors and some more participative. What is more important is matching the style to the situation. Some work has found that women’s choices tend to be more in line with prescriptions made by Vroom and Jago’s model (Jago & Vroom, 1982); however, women who used autocratic styles were rated more harshly than men who used these styles, likely because autocratic behavior is not viewed as favorably when enacted by women.

Thus, taken as a whole, the evidence suggests that the leadership styles most used by women are highly suitable for leadership success, with a particular advantage in the greater use of those styles most associated with producing higher levels of subordinate effort and performance. Of course, this does not suggest that all women use such styles, nor that all men do not, but rather that women as a group should certainly not be discounted for lack of appropriate leadership behaviors, and indeed may provide some stylistic advantages.

Ethical Behaviors

All organizational leaders face moral and ethical dilemmas, and so a leader’s ability to act ethically can have a significant impact on a variety of important outcomes. Ethical leadership is commonly defined as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision making” (Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005, p. 120). Most popular theories of leadership recognize that how leaders approach ethical dilemmas and the extent to which they exhibit ethical behaviors are integral aspects of leadership effectiveness. For example, the idealized influence aspect of TFL, a style more typical of women leaders, includes an ethical component. However, ethical leaders are thought to be more than “moral managers” who inspire ethical behavior from their subordinates; they are also expected to be “moral persons” who act ethically because that is who they are across contexts (Treviño, Hartman, & Brown, 2000). Day, Harrison, and Halpin’s (2009) integrative theory of leadership development reflects this idea, arguing that under ideal circumstances, morality develops alongside leadership such that more developed leaders are those who have also reached a higher level of moral development. Whether gender plays a role in the extent to which leaders are able to reach high levels of moral development is an important question.

Some early research findings have shown little or no differences in ethicality between men and women (Dawson, 1997; Loo, 2003), while others showed stark differences in the level of moral character that individuals tend to expect from women compared to men (Sikula & Costa, 1994). In support of the latter, more recent research on executive leaders has found that women leaders may be more likely to make ethical decisions and prioritize ethics than male leaders (Byron & Post, 2016; Haski-Leventhal, Pournader, & McKinnon, 2017; Ho, Li, Tam & Zhang, 2015; Isidro & Sobral, 2015). Firms with female representation at the top management level are more likely to uphold best ethical practices in financial reporting (Ho et al., 2015; Isidro & Sobral, 2015) and to score highly on corporate social responsibility (McGuinness, Vieito, & Wang, 2017). These studies consider firm-level outcomes related to women leaders in top-level management positions, and so they suffer from the measurement issues noted by Adams (2016). However, research on ethical leadership at lower organizational levels has provided consistent evidence that ethical leaders are likely to improve a range of subordinate outcomes, including decreased turnover intentions and increased work effort (Bedi, Alpaslan, & Green, 2016; Brown & Mitchell, 2010; Den Hartog, 2015; Moore et al., 2019). If women leaders are more likely to develop and maintain high ethicality throughout their careers, this may serve as an advantage for those whom they lead as well as the bottom line.

Given historical charges of women’s unsuitability for leadership due to hormonal influences, it is ironic that one advantage women may have in leadership situations that relates to ethical behavior may be physiological, due to their lower levels of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone has been found to be associated with antisocial and egocentric behaviors (Bos, Terburg, & van Honk, 2010; Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000; Wright et al., 2012) as well as deviant behaviors (Mazur & Booth, 2014). It also predicts lower levels of empathic accuracy (Ronay & Carney, 2013; van Honk et al., 2011), indicating a reduced capacity to understand the thoughts and feelings of others with whom one works. Further, it appears to make individuals more sensitive to rewards and less attentive to potential punishments (van Honk et al., 2004). Recent work on testosterone and leadership found that participant levels of testosterone interacted with level of power over followers to predict leader corruption, defined as the extent to which leaders use power for personal gain and/or contravene social norms to benefit themselves at the expense of the common good (Bendahan, Zehnder, Pralong, & Antonakis, 2015). Leader power more strongly predicted corruption at higher levels of testosterone.

Although testosterone is found in both men and women, women produce significantly less. In Bendahan et al.’s (2015) sample, women were found to have testosterone levels more than five times lower than those of men. This suggests that women may be less susceptible to the corrupting influences associated with having a high level of power over others and to using that power to benefit themselves over their followers. The research on ethical leadership also supports this contention. Lower susceptibility to corruption is one clear advantage that women may have in leadership positions that merits further examination.

Contexts Favoring Women

One critique of the evidence in support of a female leadership advantage is that not enough is known about the boundary conditions for advantages due to women leaders’ favorable personality, achievement, traits, or leadership styles. The most robust empirical evidence has been mostly based on meta-analyses such as those by Eagly et al. (2003) and Paustian-Underdahl et al. (2018). These findings show the strength of women leaders on average across contexts, but they do not provide detailed information about the situations in which certain advantages matter and when they do not. Today’s organizations are highly complex organisms. Technological development and social trends continue to fundamentally change how people work and how leaders lead, bringing new challenges that may be better met by typical feminine leadership styles and behaviors. The literature has begun to shed light on this question by exploring women’s leadership in three distinct contexts common in modern organizations: leading during times of organizational crisis, leading teams, and leading in virtual work environments.

The “Glass Cliff”

Recent work on leadership carried out from an evolutionary perspective suggests that sex differences in qualities associated with leadership can be differentially evoked in different contexts (i.e., the evoked culture approach; van Vugt & Ronay, 2014). Research in this area has found that priming participants with threats of death elicited preferences for more masculine and agentic leadership (Hoyt, Simon, & Innella, 2011) while priming with threats of unemployment or crime resulted in a preference for more female leadership (Brown, Diekman, & Schneider, 2011). One particular organizational context that seems to generate a preference for women leaders is under conditions of crisis. Ryan et al. (2016) argue that women are preferred for leadership in organizations in times of crisis because their presence signals an expectation of change. However, turning to women in times of crisis also puts them—as with anyone who would be in that role at the time—at greater risk of leadership failure, including falling off a so-called “glass cliff.” Sometimes referred to as the “think-crisis-think-female” phenomenon (Brown et al., 2011; Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010; Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, & Bongiorno, 2011), the “glass cliff” is based on the idea that while the metaphorical “glass ceiling” stops women from reaching executive leadership positions, those few women who do reach the top are more likely to be in positions with a high chance of failure (Ryan & Haslam, 2005).

Evidence that women are more likely than men to be selected to lead failing organizations has been found across organizational, political, and entertainment contexts (Haslam & Ryan, 2008; Ryan et al., 2016). Cook and Glass (2014) find support for this phenomenon, and extend it to include women and men of color. Examining Fortune 500 CEO transitions over 15 years, these authors found that White women and men and women of color are more likely to be promoted to CEO of poorly performing firms than White men, and are given fewer degrees of freedom to lead their firms out of decline than White men.

The reason why women are seen as better leaders in times of crisis has puzzled researchers. Some blame gender bias in hiring decisions. For instance, Oelbaum (2016) found that women are hired in times of crisis because they are a way to signal change in the organization. The thinking is that if things have not gone well, perhaps it is time for a different kind of leadership. On the other hand, recent research shows that women themselves are more likely to accept precarious leadership positions than their male colleagues (Kirolikar, Hideg, Hancock, & Varty, 2018). These authors suggest that this aligns with role congruity theory (Eagly & Karau, 2002) in that women are more likely to take on glass-cliff positions because they have internalized gender-role expectations and assume these positions are better aligned with their natural affinity for traditionally feminine traits such as cooperativeness and encouragement. It may also be that the risky offer is their best chance to assume leadership at that level, and so they accept it regardless of the risk involved. Whether it is attributable to bias on the part of hiring organizations or acceptance from women themselves, the glass-cliff phenomenon remains a threat to any female leadership advantage by producing notable failures to which biased individuals can point as evidence of women’s weak leadership. Thus, a crisis context potentially favors women for selection as leaders but may also predispose them to eventual failure in the role.

Leading Teams

Many of today’s organizations use a team-based structure, whereby employees rely on each other to accomplish their goals (Mathieu, Hollenbeck, van Knippenberg, & Ilgen, 2017). Teams present a unique context for leadership, one that demands better-developed relationship-building, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Although research in this area is still in its early stages, established theory suggests that women leaders may be better able to meet these challenges than their male counterparts. Theories of gender differences in how individuals see themselves (i.e., one’s self-construal) argue that female leaders are more likely to exhibit relational leadership styles, foster cooperative learning, and prioritize participative communication, because these behaviors align with their self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997; Eagly & Wood, 1999; Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000). A more relational self-construal leads women to have more concern for affiliation with others (Eagly et al., 2003; Luxen, 2005; van Emmerik, Gardner, Wendt, & Fischer, 2010), and to be more democratic, inclusive, and participative (Adams & Funk, 2012; Eagly & Johnson, 1990; McInerney-Lacombe, Bilimoria, & Salipante, 2008).

In a recent empirical study, Post (2015) aimed to identify whether the general tendency for women to exhibit softer, more relational characteristics that have been shown to improve leadership effectiveness in general might prove especially advantageous for leaders of teams. Her results showed that, on average, teams led by female leaders perform better than those led by men, but this advantage depended on a number of contextual moderators such as team-member functional diversity, team size, and the extent to which the team members were geographically dispersed. Specifically, women leaders did better leading bigger and more functionally diverse teams than their male counterparts. Thus, team environments may provide contexts in which a female leadership advantage may emerge. In addition, female leaders were better able to foster the high levels of cooperative learning and participative communication needed for performance in geographically dispersed teams. This latter finding has been further supported by those of other studies on the role of gender in virtual work, a third contextual factor that has been examined in the literature.

Virtual Work

Technological improvement and the increasing prevalence of virtual work arrangements are fundamentally changing the work environment (Bailey, Leonardi, & Barley, 2012; Makarius & Larson, 2017). Given the widespread adoption of computer-mediated communication and remote work, research has begun to examine gender differences in the impact of virtual work. Virtual work arrangements, such as telecommuting or virtual teams, create environments in which employees rely on technology to communicate, often across different geographical locations as opposed to face-to-face (Makarius & Larson, 2017). Technological dependence and geographical dispersion present a number of challenges for leaders, such as reduced contextual cues during communication and an increased chance of subordinates feeling isolated as a result of reduced proximity. Recent empirical evidence suggests that women leaders may be better able to lead under these challenging circumstances.

Women leaders may be favorably equipped for leading in virtual work environments in part because women tend to have more positive attitudes toward using technology to communicate with coworkers as compared to men (Gefen & Straub, 1997; Lind, 1999). In addition, the demands of virtual work fit well with traditionally female characteristics, such as strength in socially oriented communication and a participative leadership style, that can help overcome some of the challenges association with virtual work (Muethel, Gehrlein & Hoegl, 2012; Post, 2015). For example, Muethel et al. (2012) have shown that shared leadership fosters performance in virtual team contexts, and that a high female-to-male ratio is one important driver of shared leadership in virtual teams. However, the authors point out that teams composed of more females than males are often the minority in male-dominated sectors such as the software industry, from which they obtained their data. While Muethel et al.’s (2012) study showed a positive relationship between shared leadership and performance across a range of teams with different gender compositions, it is unclear whether this performance advantage would be replicated in other industries, including those in which teams have more women than men. However, subsequent studies such as Post’s (2015) study on team leadership have found similar results despite industry-related variations. Future research should continue to examine whether the increased use of virtual work to accomplish organizational tasks favors women leaders.

Reaping the Benefits of Women’s Leadership

The evidence discussed thus far provides support for the idea that women leaders often provide organizations with some performance advantages. However, gender-based stereotypes continue to plague organizations, and as a result, female leaders face a number of barriers that male leaders often do not. These barriers may jeopardize the ability of women to obtain leadership positions in the first place and may also hinder their performance in those roles. Previous research on the challenges resulting from gender-based biases suggest that gender bias can take many forms, affecting individuals’ expectations of what makes a strong leader and attitudes about legitimacy of women in powerful roles. In addition, more overt forms of gender-based discrimination and harassment remain an occupational hazard for many women leaders. It has become clear that finding a way to get women in the door of the executive suite is not enough to fairly level the playing field and achieve a female leadership advantage. Women continue to face more severe barriers to achieving leadership roles and succeeding in them than their male counterparts, and in order to close the gender gap in leadership for good, these matters must be addressed. Specifically, there are three key issues that need to be considered in order to reap the advantages of having women in leadership roles, namely gender discrimination and harassment, countering implicit bias, and unfair performance evaluations.

Gender Discrimination and Harassment

It is no surprise that although workplace discrimination based on sex remains explicitly prohibited in the United States, almost a third (29.4%) of all cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016 involved sex-based discrimination (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2016). Problems are likely even more extensive, as research on how women respond to workplace gender discrimination suggests that many offenses are left unreported (Pershing, 2003; United States Department of Defense, 2016). It has been known for a long time that gender discrimination can lead to a number of negative outcomes for individuals and organizations (Colella, Hebl, & King, 2017; Dhanani, Beus, & Joseph, 2018; Fitzgerald, Drasgow, Hulin, Gelfand, & Magley, 1997; Kossek, Su, & Wu, 2016; Sojo, Wood, & Genat, 2016). Meta-analytic evidence from the past few years shows that experiencing workplace discrimination increases employees’ job stress and dissatisfaction, decreases organizational commitment (Dhanani et al., 2018), and can eventually harm victims’ physical and mental health (Sojo et al., 2016). Kossek et al. (2016) argue that experiences resulting from gender-related biases are one reason why women have generally lower career equality overall than their male counterparts. In fact, evidence from Lebanon (Sidani, Konrad, & Karam, 2015) suggests that gender discrimination may prevent women from ascension to leadership across the globe.

Unfortunately, women leaders are not immune to gender discrimination. One might hope that the power associated with leadership positions provides a buffer that women working at lower levels in an organization do not enjoy. However, women leaders may be especially vulnerable to discrimination and harassment due to a backlash effect (Faludi, 1991). Women in leadership positions inhabit a traditionally masculine role, and this violates social norms (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rosette & Tost, 2010). According to gender role congruity theory (Diekman & Eagly, 2008; Eagly & Karau, 2002), men and women have been traditionally expected to occupy different roles in society, family, and the workplace. Women who exhibit masculine or agentic traits suffer from backlash in that they are socially and economically punished for violating stereotypical gender roles (Rudman, 1998). Leadership scholars have found that women who achieve success in male-dominated jobs, such as that of CEO, are likely to experience such backlash.

Backlash against women leaders can take a variety of forms. In a series of three studies, Amanatullah and Tinsley (2013) found assertive, self-advocating female negotiators suffered backlash because they were seen as dominant and arrogant, a finding that corresponds with common definitions of backlash. However, they also found a different kind of backlash effect for nonassertive, other-advocating female negotiators, who were seen as weak and gullible. The former effect made coworkers want to avoid a friendly relationship with the female negotiator, whereas the latter led individuals to not want to be led by them.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it is obvious that sexual harassment, a specifictype of workplace harassment, can be particularly malicious and damaging to women. Sims, Drasgow, and Fitzgerald (2005) used a longitudinal design to demonstrate that sexual harassment and discrimination can have a direct effect on turnover. The sad litany of women whose stories have come to light in the last two years has clearly shown the problem of women’s career progress being harmed by powerful men who sought to extract sexual privileges from them, whereby they felt little power to report the violation.

Sexual harassment has been shown to be more likely to occur in work environments where leadership is male dominated and in occupations that are considered atypical for women (Berdahl, 2007; Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Schneider, Pryor, and Fitzgerald, 2011; USMSPB, 1995; Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). The negative effect on women’s rise in those organizations may start before they even get there. For example, the dearth of women in high-paying technology and science positions is often lamented, yet a recent survey of female science students found that about 20% had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff in college (Swartout, 2018). Our own work with a national sample of women who were identified as having high leadership potential during college found that 82% of them had experienced some form of gender discrimination at work (Foley, Lanzo, & Offermann, 2017). Reflecting back on the past 30 years of their careers since college, these women discussed the many kinds of gender-based discrimination they had experienced and how they had dealt with these in a variety of ways. Most (75%) had never reported the incident; of those who did, most reported to a supervisor, not to the organization. This supports work by Offermann and Malamut (2002) which found that while organizational human-resource policies impacted reporting of sexual harassment, the larger impact on reporting was perceiving that one’s supervisor would be supportive and take action. This suggests that another female leadership advantage might be the greater likelihood that incidents will be reported to a female supervisor. In light of the mounting evidence of the pervasive, negative impact of workplace gender discrimination, organizations wishing to improve the likelihood of women achieving and succeeding in leadership roles need to take forceful steps to deal with workplace discrimination and harassment in all their forms.

Implicit Bias

Research on workplace discrimination has recently turned its attention toward the more subtle ways in which women and minorities experience discrimination, given a belief that legal and cultural developments have made more blatant discrimination less common (Dipboye & Colella, 2005; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000). In particular, there is increasing awareness that stereotypes and attitudes may unconsciously affect behavior, creating implicit biases of which the holder might be blissfully unaware, but which nonetheless can affect our assessments of, and behavior toward others.

One theoretical approach to studying such subtle discrimination has been work on microaggressions. Originally focusing on racial discrimination and later extended to gender and other forms of discrimination, microaggressions are defined by Sue (2010) as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (p. 7). Studies have shown stress and negative mood spillover among those exposed to daily microaggression experiences (Ong, Burrow, Fuller-Rowell, Ja, & Sue, 2013; Ong, Fuller-Rowell, & Burrow, 2009; Torres & Ong, 2010). Yet in an experimental study, Dicker and Newton (2013) found that only one third of participants chose to actively express their discontent with a discriminatory comment that had been made in their presence, despite evidence that when people are confronted with their biased behaviors they often take steps to repair perceived damage to their relationship with the victim (Mallett & Wagner, 2011). Thus, it seems that most victims of these types of incidents suffer in silence, potentially at the cost of their own health and job satisfaction.

Although the term’s definition and measurement have been criticized (see Lilienfeld, 2017, and rejoinders by Sue, 2017, and Ong & Burrow, 2017), the microaggression concept has broadened public awareness of the potential pernicious impact of the various forms of “slights, snubs, and slurs” (Offermann, Basford, Graebner, Basu, & Jaffer, 2013) faced by women and minorities in the workplace, often on a regular basis. In their review of exemplary human-resource practices supporting organizational diversity and inclusion efforts, Offermann and Basford (2014) found that leading organizations currently understand that targets of such subtle discrimination can experience significant detrimental consequences. As a result, many have now included emphasis on countering subtle discrimination as part of their training programs. It is not enough to bring in diversity; organizations wishing to capitalize on the value of diverse perspectives and realize the advantages of female leadership also need to make their workplaces inclusive and welcoming.

Unfair Performance Evaluations

One especially pervasive way in which gender bias manifests itself in the workplace is in how performance is rated and rewarded. Evidence of a “gender wage gap,” whereby men are paid more than women for comparable work, has been found for female employees at all levels across organizations across the world (Catalyst, 2016; Joshi, Son, & Roh, 2015; Thompson, 2014). This led the United Kingdom in April 2017 to mandate gender-pay-gap reporting for all organizations with over 250 employees by April 2018. This data has revealed that about 78% of organizations pay men more than women on average, leaving only 14% that pay women more than men and 8% with no gap (Brassil, 2018). What is even more concerning is that the U.K. is doing quite well compared to other countries such as Norway and France (OECD, 2018). The gender wage gap has perplexed researchers as it is difficult to parse out the many reasons why women are paid less than men on average. This disadvantage can be the result of illegal unfair pay, but can also be attributed to a systematic pattern of women being overrepresented in lower paid jobs and industries.

One clear antecedent of the gender wage gap for women leaders that also affects their likelihood of promotion into senior leadership roles is the documented problems in fairly assessing the performance of women leaders. Specific characteristics of performance raters have been found to make it more or less likely that women leaders will receive fair assessments. For instance, one meta-analysis found a significant pro-male bias when performance was rated by men as opposed to women raters (Bowen, Swim, & Jacobs, 2000). Similarly, Briscoe and Joshi (2017) examined the role of political ideology in performance ratings. Their findings suggest that more conservative supervisors tend to have a larger gender gap in performance-based pay as compared to more liberal supervisors, and that this gap is even more pronounced at higher organizational levels. However, these gender-related inequalities in performance ratings may be mitigated by situational factors such as the gender composition of a leader’s work group. A recent experimental field study found that evaluations of women leaders were fairer in gender-balanced work groups as opposed to male-dominated work groups (Gloor, Morf, Paustian-Underdahl, & Backes-Gellner, 2018). While this could be a saving grace for women working in teams with other women, such a situationis often not the case for women in high-level management positions.

The literature on selection has repeatedly shown a bias against women in hiring for leadership positions (Heilman, 2001; Heilman & Haynes, 2005; Lyons & McArthur, 2007). It has been found that although women in general score more highly than men in performance evaluations, when bosses and others are asked about leader potential, men are rated more highly than women (Blanton, 2004; Roth, Purvis, & Bobko, 2012). Joshi et al. (2015) found no significant differences in performance evaluations between women and men, but a substantial gap in promotions and other rewards. Lyons and McArthur (2007) argue that executive performance evaluations are made according to gender expectations, with men fitting seamlessly into organizational expectations and women’s gender proving to be an obstacle. Their research documented that comments about gender were 25 times more likely to be made about women candidates than men. The implicit theories of leadership described earlier have also been shown to affect performance appraisals of leaders, with a mismatch of follower expectations and leader behavior associated with decreased leader performance evaluations and promotion recommendations (Schyns, 2006).

On the flip side, another possible bias has been shown to occur when leaders consider the likelihood of future derailment in a subordinate manager. Using two large archival data sets, Bono et al. (2017) found that although women were rated by multiple sources as showing slightly less ineffective interpersonal behaviors than men, they were viewed as more likely to derail in the future when they did exhibit such behaviors than men were. An increased perception that derailment was more likely led to withdrawal of mentoring and sponsorship by the supervisor, elements that are critical to career advancement. Thus, gender bias may occur both in terms of predictions of lower future success and in predictions of eventual failure.

Such deep-seated tendencies as gender-related bias can be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. To avoid gender bias, suggestions have been made that organizations should make special efforts to ensure that relevant skills are actually assessed by people who know how to avoid such bias (Yukl, 2013). One way of managing bias that has been proposed is the use of more structured evaluations and clear promotion criteria (Schyns, 2006). These formats may encourage a more nuanced and complete evaluation that forces evaluators to consider the actual criteria that are driving their decisions.


It is important to note the positive virtues that women can bring to the leadership enterprise, as has been done here. Countering common stereotypes that harm women in the workforce is unfortunately still necessary in order to allow women with leadership talent to take their due place at senior levels in today’s organizations. However, Lammers and Gast (2017) suggest care should be exercised so as not to overexaggerate women’s leadership advantage, arguing that positive stereotypes claiming women to be particularly well qualified for leadership may actually harm their chances of achieving leadership by undermining support for affirmative action and paradoxically maintaining gender inequality. This is a premature conclusion. Rather, a reasoned consideration of the positive aspects of women’s leadership is not only warranted but is necessary in order to surmount the power of implicit and explicit biases that work against women.

Leadership talent comes in different packages, many of which go beyond the traditional naïve image of a tall, attractive, White man. Opening leadership opportunities to women and minorities requires organizations to pay continued attention to addressing bias and discrimination in expectations and evaluations as noted here. Bringing women and other nontraditional leaders in is only the first step: creating inclusive organizations that allow them to grow and thrive is what will help organizations succeed in the future.

Proponents of women’s leadership long ago deplored the greater attention, fame, and fortune accruing to Fred Astaire, the noted dancer and actor, compared to his partner Ginger Rogers, when, in fact, “Ginger did everything Fred did, except backwards and in heels” (Thaves, 1982). Although women still report facing additional challenges in assuming and enacting leadership that would not be faced by men, there may be compensating benefits to their leadership as well. It remains for organizations to recognize the potential benefits of having a multi-gendered workforce at all organization levels and to effectively recognize and use the leadership talents of both their men and their women.


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