Men and Women in Leadership: “Must-Haves” versus “Nice-to-Have” Traits

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

American women are still underrepresented in top leadership positions, in both public and private sectors. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “There is no lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles. Women earn the majority of university degrees at every level except for professional degrees, and more women are in the workforce today than ever before. There must be something inherent in the system that’s working against them. Blatant sex discrimination is still a problem, as data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show. But subtler problems like hostile work environments, negative stereotypes about women in leadership, and bias also keep women out of the top spots. Unconscious or implicit bias can cloud judgment in ways people are not fully aware of.”

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As the debate on the causes of the underrepresentation of women in leadership continues, new studies aim to better understand these causes. Now, research shows that both men and women believe stereotypically masculine traits such as assertiveness and competence are necessary to succeed in leadership roles, whereas stereotypically feminine (or communal) traits—such as tolerance and cooperativeness—are viewed as desirable but ultimately superfluous add-ons. In addition, it suggests that women might be relatively more supportive of leaders with more communal leadership styles compared to men.

The research, detailed in the article “Unnecessary Frills: Communality as a Nice (But Expendable) Trait in Leaders” (published last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology) includes two different studies.

For the first study, the researchers asked 273 men and women to design their “ideal leader” in order to examine the leadership traits that men and women viewed as requisite versus superfluous. For the second study, which included a different group of 249 men and women, researchers examined whether the participants’ expectations for someone in a leadership role differed when they thought of themselves as occupying that position.

Participants were asked to choose among the following traits:

5 stereotypycally masculine competence traits (capable, competent, confident, common sense, intelligent) and 5 stereotypically feminine communal traits (good-natured, sincere, tolerant, happy, trustworthy)

5 stereotypycally masculine assertive traits (ambitious, assertive, competitive, decisive, self-reliant) and 5 stereotypically feminine communal traits (cooperative, patient, polite, sensitive, cheerful)

5 negative masculine stereotypes (arrogant, controlling, rebellious, cynical, stubborn) and 5 negative feminine stereotypes (emotional, naïve, shy, weak, yielding)

Andrea Vial, one of the tow study co-authors, said in a press release: “Our results underscore that women internalize a stereotypically masculine view of leadership, Although women seem to value communality more than men when thinking about other leaders, they may feel that acting in a stereotypically feminine way themselves could place them at a disadvantage compared to male leaders.” He added: “Our results suggest that the concentration of men in top decision-making roles such as corporate boards and chief executive offices may be self-sustaining because men in particular tend to devalue more communal styles of leadership—and men are typically the gatekeepers to top organizational positions of prestige and authority,”

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  1. As much as our generation would like to not continue to enforce gender roles or associate genders with particular traits, we can not ignore the reality that these stereotypes exist. They have grown out of the history of this country with the “separation of spheres” where women had a role to maintain the children and household to create a haven for their husbands who had their own sphere in the public realm of business and politics. That’s why we associate communal traits with women and assertive traits with men. And while the ideas of the separation of spheres and the cult of domesticity started in the 19th century, it continued well into the 20th and 21st centuries, and many people who hold leadership positions today grew up with these ideas instilled within them and will use them to judge our competence. It may not be fair or right, but it is a problem that we have to learn to navigate and repair as we become leaders ourselves.

  2. While there is blatant discrimination against women in the corporate world, this study doesn’t prove anything. They took words such as “capable, competent, confident, common sense, intelligent” and decided that they were stereotypically masculine. They then took words such as “good-natured, sincere, tolerant, happy, trustworthy” and decided they were feminine. I think that more than anything it just highlights the author of the study’s bias more significant than it accurately reflects discrimination in the workplace. If I were the study’s author, I would ask people to explore further what makes personality traits feminine or masculine. I would then ask them to assign those traits to various occupations. You can’t just pick words that are obviously better indications of leadership and then decide they’re masculine.

  3. I believe instead of focusing on the value of “female” communal stereotypes and “male” stereotypes, we should focus on removing the label of “masculine” and “feminine” from these stereotypes. To be candid, I would prefer a leader to be “capable, competent, confident” than “good-natured” and “happy” however, I do not see these traits as masculine and feminine. I believe that both men and women can have these traits to be a successful leader. I do not believe it is wrong to have a hierarchy of traits that you deem more important for a leader to have however, I do believe that it is wrong for these traits to only be associated with one gender. I believe as society we should attempt to remove these gender labels from these traits. I also believe women should be more confident to express that they obtain “masculine” skills and should not feel trapped to only expressing communal traits. In the same way I do not think men should feel that they must only express traditionally “masculine” traits as the perception of importance and value of these traits varies depending on the role and the person evaluating the significance of these traits. We need to ask what we can we do to remove the connotations of a specific gender from these traits?

  4. As I was reading this, this made me think more about myself and being a woman in this society. It is sad that there are strong women leaders in the world, but men are deemed to be better leaders. While the cooperate world is dominated by men, there are some women that can be qualified for these positions but feel that they can’t be a good leader because they dont possess the traits men do. Such as ambition, assertiveness, or competition. In order for this gap to close I feel that women should continue to speak up and believe that they can be a leader just as much as a man can be. The problem that women face is that they doubt themselves due to society which causes women to make biases about themselves.

    • I agree with you. There are several strong women leaders, but because of the world we live in, everyone else may not notice. Society is made for, and controlled by men. We as women need to work together to change that. It will take time, but we need to have equality in order for us to move up in the world. There are many women in my life, my family alone that i would describe as ambitious, assertive, and competitive. So i do not feel like these are masculine traits, and I do not believe that only males exhibit these traits. I feel that women that exhibit these traits are seen as bossy and controlling and are therefore overlooked.

  5. While reading this post, the first question that comes to mind is “are you kidding me? Who deemed that these are masculine traits in the first place?” I think it goes without question that a leader should be competent and have common sense over being happy and good-natured; I’m not particularly sure the traits chosen in this study necessarily have equal weight nor do I agree with the distinction that the labels described are in fact “masculine.”

    That being said, perhaps the solution to this gender gap in leadership would be for women to start thinking of a good leader as someone that incorporates a communal mindset but not so much that it hinders them from their position. I believe that a good leader values the opinion of others and recognizes the importance of fostering a positive work environment. However, at the end of the day a leader also needs to be able to make a swift and competent decision without always needing to stop and ask for the guidance of others. In response to this study, perhaps the idea of the historically stereotypical dominant male authority figure influenced women to counterbalance with an emphasis on communal leadership when in reality, aspects from both leadership styles are equally important. I believe that by acknowledging and implementing this, negating the idea that these adjectives are gender-specific, and balancing the necessity for both self-sustainability and communality in our expectations of successful leaders, more women will make it to top decision-making roles.

  6. The more I progress in my degree the more I come to see these societal biases come to play. It is obvious that the cooperate world is dominated by men but this isn’t simply because women with the appropriate degrees are not around to take these positions. Even worse, when it come to leadership roles women are almost completely wiped out. I agree with the article on the idea that most characteristics that women posses are viewed as nice to have traits. Traits like tolerant, cooperative, trustworthy and others of this nature are viewed as traits women posses. Traits like assertiveness, competence, confidence, and others of this sort are viewed as traits men posses. It is not only men that have these view, but also women. The problem is not only men but women who also believe men are more capable of leading. This is the situation that Sheryl Sandberg described in her book lean in. She mentioned that the problem of gender inequality begins at an early age and stays with us into adulthood. The problem isn’t only that some men have biases against women but also women have biases against themselves. There is no perfect recipes for leadership and women should also believe in themselves and try to push through their own stereotypes.

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