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Women in leadership: Walking the gender tightrope

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Recent media attention around Hillary Clinton's presidential bid highlights some of the many challenges that female leaders face at work. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker commented that her shopping habits have put her out of touch with the average American. The reality is, female leaders face a different and more challenging set of expectations than their male counterparts.

These differences derive from gender role expectations that consistently put women at a perceptual disadvantage, despite evidence that male and female leaders are both effective, and indeed that female leaders outperform male leaders when the leadership role requires interpersonal skills and co-operation. And let's face it, what leadership role doesn't require these skills?

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Gender-role characteristics

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that society (both women and men) punish women for violating gender-role stereotypes. Women are expected to be communal (caring, warm, compassionate, nurturing and sensitive). In contrast, men are expected to exhibit characteristics of assertiveness, independence, ambition, self-confidence and even aggression.

Gender roles and leadership

The challenge for female leaders is how they are expected to behave is inconsistent with how leaders ought to behave. We expect leaders to be ambitious, confident and driven, not caring, warm and sensitive. Therefore, men are automatically at a leadership advantage because their behaviour is consistent with perceptions. In contrast, women face a quandary, when they behave consistently with gender-role expectations, they are perceived to be likeable but weak (not leadership material). However, if they exhibit the assertive behaviours leaders are expected to possess, they are in violation of their gender-role stereotype and are perceived to be unlikable, self-interested and interpersonally hostile (not leadership material).

Gender and performance evaluations

Given these data, it is perhaps not surprising that although women make up 48 per cent of the labour force, they hold only 16 per cent of board of director seats and fewer than 5 per cent of the top jobs (CEO positions).

One reason for this abysmal representation of women in leadership positions relates to how they are evaluated by managers. Research by Victoria L. Brescoll has demonstrated that managers reward men who express good ideas at work through higher performance appraisals. However, there was no corresponding increase for women who expressed equally good ideas.

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Similarly, Madeline E. Heilman and colleagues found that when men engage in extra-role behaviours at work, they are rewarded; whereas women who engage in similar extra-role behaviours do not benefit. Another reason for low representation may relate to the "glass cliff," the notion that women are less likely to be selected for leadership roles, except when an organization is in crisis. When an organization's performance is in decline, women are perceived to be more suitable leaders. Of course, when a ship is already sinking, leaders are more likely to fail.

Gender and emotional expression

Gender-role expectations also dictate the types of emotions women are able to express at work. A study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann found that participants placed more status on men who expressed anger than on women who expressed anger. Participants also made different judgments about why men versus women expressed anger. Participants viewed men who expressed anger to be reacting to the situation at hand, whereas they viewed anger expressed by women to be a personality trait (she is just an angry person).

Gender, weight and pay

Disturbingly, your weight and gender influences how much you make at work. Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable found that very thin women make $3,981 (U.S.) more than average-weight women do. However, women heavier than the average woman earn $1,848 (U.S.) less than the average woman does. Men on the other hand are penalized for being very thin, making $4,057 (U.S.) less than the average-weight man. We all want to believe that we are paid because of our brains and how hard we work, but our body type and how hard we work out influences our pay as well.

Marriage and attitudes toward women in the workplace

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Sreedhari D. Desai and colleagues found that men who were married to women who did not work viewed women in the work force unfavourably, perceived organizations with higher proportions of women as underperforming organizations, did not want to work for organizations with female leaders and denied qualified women promotion in their organizations. They also found that while single, men view women in the workplace more favourably, but if they marry a woman who does not work, their attitudes change to view women more unfavourably in the workplace. Therefore, traditional marriages lead to traditional views of women in the workplace.

The positive influence of women in the workplace

Although perceptions of women in the workplace are generally unfavourable, ironically, evidence across a range of studies suggests that female leaders are more likely than male leaders to exhibit behaviours related to leadership effectiveness.

Unfortunately, perceptions of women in the workplace do not match the reality of women's performance. This harms women's progress in the work force and in society as well as an organization's bottom line. Contrary to some people's beliefs, if you want high-performing organizations, our first recommendation is to make sure you are hiring women.

Sandy Hershcovis, PhD, (@SandyHershcovis) is an associate professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). She is an expert in organizational behaviour and is particularly interested in witness reactions to workplace mistreatment with a focus on witness intervention.

Justin Weinhardt, PhD, (@OrgPsychologist) is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). He is an expert in organizational behaviour, and has a particular interest in understanding how motivation and decision making change over time.

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