By Melissa J. Anderson

New research [PDF] out of INSEAD, the world’s largest graduate business school, shows that women leaders experience less stress at work when they feel good about… being women. This finding may seem simple and obvious, but the rigorous study delves deep into identity theory around leadership and gender, with quantitative research on over 600 female leaders across the globe.

The study, “Me, a woman and a leader: Antecedents and consequences of the identity conflict of women leaders,” was written by INSEAD researchers Natalia Karelaia and Laura Guillén. They found that, especially in male dominated organizations, women leaders experience significant conflict regarding their social identities as both a leader and a woman.

Many women in the study reported spending all day conforming to an aggressive, stereotypically “male” leadership identity at work. Feeling forced to behave in a way that was inauthentic to their more traditionally “female” gender identity – warm, nurturing, cooperative – left these women unhappy at work, stressed out, and unmotivated to lead.

These women saw leadership as something the had to do, rather than something they wanted to do.

But, the research shows, this identity conflict seemed to diminish in companies that were more gender balanced at the top, middle, and entry level. In fact, working in organizations where being a woman is seen as explicitly positive left them more motivated to lead.

“By reducing identity conflict, a more positive gender identity increases the joy of leading and decreases the sense of obligation to do so,” Karelaia and Guillén write.

Identity Conflict

Being both a woman and a leader is obviously not incompatible. But in practice, many of the women in the study were experiencing a clash – that there were some incompatibilities in how they were expected to behave as a leader at work, and how they felt as a woman.

Karelaia and Guillén wanted to find out how this identity conflict could be mitigated.

They found that when the women in the study identified positively as a leader, they were more motivated to lead (that leadership was a professional pleasure, rather than a chore). But these women still gave themselves low marks for “well-being.” That is, they were still really stressed out, and still had that identity conflict. The researchers write, “This suggests that while appreciating the belonging to the social category of leaders may translate into more leadership ambition, it does not relieve women from the internal conflicts that they may experience due to conflicting personal and professional identities.”

On the other hand, women who had a positive identity around being a woman experienced less conflict – which meant less stress and an increased desire to lead. Karalaia and Guillén write:

“In contrast, our results revealed that holding a more positive gender identity reduces women leaders’ perceived conflict between their self-views as women and leaders. Thus, cultivating and maintaining a positive gender identity helps women leaders to improve their well-being not only directly, but also indirectly—by reducing identity conflict.”

When women are in organizations that explicitly value female leaders (and traditionally female leadership traits), they, in turn, feel better about themselves.

Finally, the study suggested that women who work in more gender balanced companies tend to have a more positive self-identity as well. The researchers explain that women who work in male-dominated workplaces may have a difficulty seeing themselves as leaders because there are so few women leaders around to model female leadership traits (both to women, and to the rest of the workforce). “It has been suggested that because others may see women’s leadership attempts as less legitimate and thus accept them less, women may find it more difficult to develop self-concepts as leaders,” they write.

That means companies with more male-dominated workforces (and significantly more men at the senior level) may have to work harder to provide support to women in management. “Our result that the proportion of women in the organization is linked to women leaders’ identity conflict implies that for women, the road of developing a self-concept as a leader may be especially bumpy in the environments where women are numerically underrepresented,” they explain.

Best Practices

Karalaia and Guillén offered a few pieces of advice on how companies can better support women leaders.

1. Mentoring Programs: the research shows that these kinds of programs provide “psychological support” to women, and also “convey the value that the organizations place on their female contributors.” These programs can be especially effective in companies that have a low percentage of women.

2. Consider Culture: companies should be careful that organizational culture isn’t discouraging women from leadership. They explain, “For example, it would be desirable to pay attention to language and symbols used to define successful leadership performance and to have low organizational tolerance for humor that implicitly delegitimizes women’s leadership attempts.”

3. Discuss Gender: by discussing gender and leadership characteristics, companies can talk about how more stereotypically female traits (sensitivity, cooperation) can be beneficial in today’s modern workplace.

4. Leadership Development: Karalaia and Guillén say that companies should have single-sex and co-ed leadership development sessions. “Co-educational sessions may help women to cultivate the feeling of acceptance by others (not only by women but also by men) and thus allow for a more comprehensive development of their leader identity.”

By encouraging women to lead with authenticity, and providing the support they may need to do so, companies can better reap the benefits of gender diversity.