25 September 2023

Optional extras: Why women’s traits are seen as less valuable than men’s

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Meera Jagannathan* says new research suggests stereotypically feminine traits are seen as nice ‘add-ons’, but unnecessary for leadership.

Photo: Jess Watters

Patience and tolerance are just bells and whistles, new research suggests.

Stereotypically feminine leadership traits like niceness, kindness and sensitivity to others’ needs are viewed as unnecessary “add-ons,” according to a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, while stereotypically masculine traits like competence and assertiveness are considered more defining and essential to a leadership role.

The paper’s two studies may shed light on why women remain scarce in leadership roles, the authors suggested, despite much research touting the benefits of qualities like empathy.

Andrea Vial, a postdoctoral research associate at New York University and the paper’s lead author, told Moneyish the findings provide a spin on what social psychologists have known for some time.

“Communal traits — what we often associate with women; being more tolerant, cooperative, kind — are attributes that are just seen as nonessential for leaders,” Vial said.

“They’re valued, but they’re not really valued to the extent that more traditionally masculine traits are valued — which is admittedly very depressing, considering in particular the scarcity of women in leadership positions.”

This bias in favour of more masculine traits, she added, appears to play a role in the longstanding underrepresentation of women in top leadership positions.

Just 5 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women make up only 16.5 per cent of top executives in S&P 500 companies excluding CEOs.

The first study gave 273 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) a set budget and asked them to “purchase” traits to design their ideal leader.

Participants tended to value the more stereotypically feminine characteristics (aka communal traits) only after the requirements of stereotypically masculine characteristics (aka agentic traits) had been fulfilled.

Women tended to prefer leaders with “more of a balance between competence and communality,” the study suggested, while men tended to “more strongly favour competence.”

A second study gauged how 249 mTurk participants, assigned to imagine themselves as either a team leader or an assistant, felt about various traits that would personally help them succeed in their roles.

Both men and women saw competence and assertiveness as relatively more vital to leaders’ success, while communality was more important to assistants’ success.

One limitation was the study’s focus on a limited number of traits, Vial said.

She and co-author Jaime Napier also didn’t specify workplace context, noting that it’s possible that being a leader working in a “traditionally feminine domain” like child care could shift which traits people perceived as most essential.

There seems to exist a gap between their data, Vial said, and research by management scholars that these communal traits — ones that “grease the wheels of social interaction” — are actually quite desirable in leaders.

“They predict good outcomes for leaders,” she said.

“And yet laypeople — the kinds of people that we talk to in our study; people who are not experts in leadership — they don’t quite see it this way.”

The present study has broader implications for men and women in the workplace, Vial said.

“One is that men overall tend to more often be in these kinds of gatekeeper roles, where they would have a say in who makes it to a leadership position,” she said.

“So if men in particular have more of a preference for leaders who are more agentic rather than communal, then they might have a bias against female leaders to the extent that they see female leaders being more communal than agentic.”

On the flip side, she added, women who have internalised these stereotypically masculine expectations of leaders might shy away from pursuing top leadership.

“If women see leadership as primarily involving agentic traits, then one possibility is that they will not be interested in pursuing those roles — which basically would reduce or limit the number of women in the pool of people who are even being considered for these roles,” she said.

Drawing upon previous social psychology work, Vial suggested that mentors and role models could help move the needle.

“Seeing more women in these types of positions, particularly women who are successful in these positions, I think, would be a huge help,” she said.

It’s also a matter of changing what we emphasise when we talk about leadership, she added.

“If management scholars have for some time now identified more communal leader traits as being positive, why is there that gap with laypeople?” she said.

“Why is that not being communicated a bit more strongly, for example?”

* Meera Jagannathan is a reporter for Moneyish and DowJones. She tweets at @meerajag.

This article first appeared at moneyish.com.

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