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gender and leadershipI read lots of articles and research papers about women in business – and why there are not more women at the top. One I recently read is “The Glass Ceiling Revisited: Gender & Perceptions of Competency” by Management Research Group. This paper refers to a theory called “stereotype incongruity” (based on 2009 research by Eagly and Sczesny). The theory is explained this way: “stereotypes about women are less congruent with stereotypes about leaders than are stereotypes about men.”

Let me break that down. We have stereotypes about how men vs. women behave; and we have stereotypes about how leaders behave. There is more overlap between the stereotypes for men and leaders than there is between the stereotypes for women and leaders.

The MRG paper goes on to give examples of stereotypes. Men are more “agentic,” i.e., aggressive, ambitious, dominant and self-confident. (Links are to blogs I have written on masculine-feminine differences in these areas.) Women are “communal,” meaning affectionate, helpful, friendly and sensitive.  Leaders are seen as agentic rather than communal. Women are less likely to fit the gendered view of leadership.

The research indeed reflects the way many people think. The problem is not in the research, but in this way of thinking. First, obviously, it is based on stereotypes. Any one woman may be more “agentic” than “communal” (in other words, she may lead with more masculine than feminine strengths). If leadership evaluations are based on stereotypes, women with masculine strengths will be lumped in with women with feminine strengths. They will be overlooked as potential leaders even though their strengths overlap substantially with strengths associated with leadership.

More important, the stereotype about leadership itself is flawed. It is based on a narrow and old-school view of leadership. It identifies leadership with masculine strengths; it fails to recognize the value of feminine ways of leading. More and more leadership models recognize the value of “feminine” strengths – inclusiveness, empathy, listening, humility, etc. John Gerzema, last year published The Athena Doctrine, which says that the masculine form of leadership is inadequate for today’s challenges. Leaders – men and women – need both masculine and feminine leadership strengths. Oh, and then there is my book, which shows how engagement, productivity and profitability are greater in a culture that leverages both masculine and feminine styles.

We cannot achieve gender diversity in leadership by teaching women to be masculine (“agenic”) as then we would all be the same. We can achieve gender diversity when we change the stereotypical thinking that identifies leadership with only masculine styles.

What ideas do you have for changing gendered views of leadership?