Women Leaders: The Gender Trap

July 17, 2012 • LEADERSHIP

In cultivating their leadership style, women have to be conscious of which traits they cultivate and which ones they suppress. Compared to their male counterparts, there are sharp differences in what they are expected to show and what they can “get away with”.

A common fallacy among some female executives is that they need to act like men to get ahead in organizations. But from our systematic work with executives on Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development (IMD) all-female Strategic Leadership program, the answer is not so straightforward. The challenge is actually two-fold: women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, while at the same time remaining true to certain gender expectations.


Pushing “Too Hard”
The reason that women often feel obliged to play up archetypal male traits is that these are closely associated with the image of an effective leader. What scholars dub “agentic” male behaviours – such as assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, self-confidence, and task focus – also underpin mainstream expectations about leaders.1

The problem, for women who strive to project those prototypical leadership behaviors, is that they are rarely judged in the same way as men. Even if they exhibit less extreme behaviors than certain male colleagues, they may still be viewed more negatively. A simple illustration is the former Citigroup CFO, Sallie Krawcheck, who was harshly dubbed “Sallie Paycheck” in reference to compensation that would not have been considered remarkable by banking standards had she been a man.2

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