iStock_000016414572XSmallBy Tina Vasquez

According to a recent Northwestern University report entitled Are Leader Stereotypes Masculine?, the characteristics that people commonly ascribe to women, men, and leaders contribute to the challenges that women face in obtaining leadership roles and performing well in them.

The study also found that women are viewed as less qualified in most leadership roles and when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, such as being assertive or aggressive, they are viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous. Alice Eagly, professor of psychology at Northwestern and co-author of the study calls this ‘the double bind.’

“Masculine qualities are seen as more crucial to leadership, so women are thought to be less qualified than men. We call this the double bind because when women have these ‘masculine’ characteristics and behave in ways that are competitive and ambitious, it’s not seen as a good thing,” Eagly said.

“This is because women are thought of as ‘nice’; they must be nice even when they become leaders, which leads people to question whether or not they’re cut out for the role. If they’re not nice; however, people wonder what’s wrong with them. Men don’t have this problem because they’re never expected to be nice.”

How do we get out of this Catch-22? Eagly provided some suggestions.

Being ‘Extra Good’

The report is a meta-analysis, an integration of a large number of studies addressing the same question. According to Eagly, the meta-analysis started as a student project in a class years ago and it kept growing. Are Leader Stereotypes Masculine? incorporated studies from three different paradigms of research to examine the cultural masculinity of leadership stereotypes and the conditions under which such masculinity is more or less pronounced. The paradigms are characterized as “think manager-think male,” which featured 40 studies; “agency-communion,” which featured 22 studies; and “masculinity-femininity,” which featured seven studies.

The perceptions of women leaders revealed by the meta-analysis are a direct reflection of gender stereotypes. According to the research, predominantly “communal” qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are associated with women, and predominantly “agentic” qualities, such as being assertive or competitive, are associated with men.

The bad news, according to Eagly, is that men have a more “masculine” take on leadership than women, and this is problematic because men are more frequently in charge at higher levels and they are often responsible for doing the hiring. If he doesn’t believe a woman is fit for a leadership role, it’s because of the characteristics he believes to be inherent in her gender. This is not only considered stereotyping, but flat out discrimination.

“There is still a very large program with leadership being seen as culturally masculine. This creates discrimination against women and people should be upset over this,” Eagly said.

“Discrimination is not something we take pride in as Americans. In order to not be seen as less qualified, women have to be extra good because they have to combat the baseline assumption that they’ll be too kind to do their job well. This creates a double standard and discrimination ¬– and this is just when women are trying to obtain a leadership position. They can’t escape being a woman and they’ll experience a whole host of other problems once they obtain a position of power. They will always have to be both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’”

Shining a Light on Bias

Eagly believes that one of the ways to combat this type of discrimination is to make people aware of it, which is why this meta-analysis is so important. We’re all affected by it – so start with your own biases.

If, for example, a male and female employee are up for a leadership position at work and you find yourself questioning whether or not the woman could be tough enough for the job, you’ve already let stereotypes creep in and influence your opinion based on the unfair assumptions about what women are capable of as leaders. Essentially, people have to make themselves hyper-aware of these prejudices in order to combat them.

It’s also crucial that women in leadership positions be aware of the double bind. If they aren’t, they will be shocked and overwhelmed when they encounter the double standards and unfair expectations that still run rampant in corporations large and small. If women are aware going in, they will better be able to navigate the complexities of being a woman in a leadership position.

There is good news, too. Attitudes are shifting and the prejudice women experience is not as strong as it once was, the meta-analysis revealed. According to Eagly, the tendency for leadership to be masculine has waned and is becoming more androgynous, which creates a more level playing field. Hopefully this will encourage women to aim for higher positions and be confident that they won’t be discriminated against along the way – but if they are, they’ll continue having to be ‘extra good.’

“Women who become leaders, by their very presence, are defying stereotypes,” Eagly said.

“Forty years ago it was inconceivable that a woman would ever run for president. By her very presence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is showing that a woman can do that job; she is defying stereotypes. Women have to keep pushing forward, keep moving up the ranks and as they do, perceptions that leadership has to be masculine will continue to slip away.”