The traits we typically associate with leaders – forceful, dominant, strong, competent or even heroic – are stereotypically associated with men. By contrast, there are fewer qualities typically associated with women that are also associated with leadership, such as being a good communicator. This has led to the, ‘Think manager, think man’ phenomena that is often observed in workplaces.
The ‘Think manager, think man’ outlook creates a problem for women who aspire to leadership roles. Most of us have pre-existing expectations about leadership. When we evaluate someone’s leadership potential, we subconsciously compare them to our expectations. When our expectations are met, they become a projection. We attribute leadership qualities and behaviours to the person, even if they have never exhibited them.
Because our expectations of leadership are masculine, when we evaluate men’s potential, we are much more likely to see them as a good fit. Women do not meet our masculine expectations; therefore the projection is never triggered.
This male bias in our cognitive processing of leadership potential is powerful. “Think manager, think man” means we can fail to see women’s leadership potential. In fact, research suggests that men and women behave very similarly in senior roles, but men routinely receive higher leadership ratings.
The evidence for this bias in organisations is clear. Think about your own organisation. Who is at the top? If there were no gender bias, men and women would be equally represented in leadership roles. Unfortunately, the traditional organisation of work has sustained the mismatch between being a leader and being a woman. Hierarchical, top-down structures tend to reinforce existing masculine leadership cultures.
Simply raising awareness of this bias is unlikely to solve the problem. Research suggests that bias may be reduced by certain interpersonal cultures that can develop around leaders. When individuals report that the interpersonal structure of their team is cohesive, exemplified by closely bonded relationships between team members, in which individuals seek and share advice freely, they tend to evaluate female leaders highly – more highly than male leaders. This is good news for women.
The traditional world of work is changing. Increasingly, organisations are building flatter, cohesive interpersonal structures that facilitate rapid action and intensive knowledge sharing. The new interpersonal organisation of work may facilitate the recognition of women as leaders.