The social interactions in which people claim and grant leader identities do not occur ex nihilo but are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a leader. In most cultures, the meaning is masculine, making the prototypical leader a quintessentially masculine man: decisive, assertive, and independent (Bailyn, 2006; Calás & Smircich, 1991; Dennis & Kunkel, 2004; Epitropaki & Martin, 2004;Powell, Butterfield, & Parent, 2002; Willemsen, 2002).
By contrast, women are thought to be communal—friendly, unselfish, care-taking — and thus lacking in the qualities required for success in leadership roles (Heilman, Block, Martell, & Simon, 1989; Schein, 2001; Fletcher, 2004). Women of Asian descent are particularly likely to be stereotyped as passive, reserved, and lacking in ambition, and Latinas are often seen as overemotional (for a review, see Giscombe & Mattis, 2002), characteristics that would appear to disqualify these women for leadership. The mismatch between qualities attributed to women and qualities thought necessary for leadership places women leaders in a double bind and subjects them to a double standard. Women in positions of authority are thought too aggressive or not aggressive enough, and what appears assertive, self-confident, or entrepreneurial in a man often looks abrasive, arrogant, or self-promoting in a woman (for a review, see Heilman & Parks-Stamm, 2007). African American women are especially vulnerable to such stereotypes and risk being seen as overly aggressive and confrontational (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). In experiment after experiment, women who achieve in distinctly male arenas are seen as competent but are less well liked than equally successful men (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004: 416). Merely being a successful woman in a male domain can be regarded as a violation of gender norms warranting sanctions (e.g., Heilman & Okimoto, 2007). By the sametoken, when women performing traditionally male roles are seen as conforming to feminine stereotypes, they tend to be liked but not respected (Rudman & Glick, 2001: 744): they are judged too soft, emotional, and unassertive to make tough decisions and to come across as sufficiently authoritative (Eagly & Carli, 2007). In short, women can face trade-offs between competence and likability in leadership roles.
If a central developmental task for an aspiring leader is to integrate the leader identity into the core self, then this task is fraught at the outset for a woman, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about her authority (Ely & Rhode, 2010). Workplace biases exacerbate the problem, posing challenges for women at every stage. We describe these challenges below.
Few role models for women: relative to their male counterparts, aspiring women leaders have less social support for learning how to credibly claim a leader identity. People learn new roles by identifying with role models, experimenting with provisional identities, and evaluating experiments against internal standards and external feedback (Ibarra, 1999). Yet a dearth of women leaders leaves younger women with few role models whose styles are feasible or congruent with their self-concepts (Ely, 1994; Ibarra, 1999), a problem that may be particularly acute for women of color, who cite lack of company role models of the same race or ethnicity to be a major barrier to advancement (Giscomb & Mattis, 2002). And because women receive less latitude for making mistakes in the learning process (Foschi, 1996; Bell & Nkomo, 2001), they may be more risk-averse, further curtailing experimentation (Kanter, 1977).
Women’s under-representation in senior positions can also signal that being female is a liability, which can discourage would-be women leaders from turning to senior women for developmental advice and support. In a study comparing experiences of women law associates as a function of women’s representation in their firm’s partnership, those in firms with few women partners were less likely to experience gender as a positive basis for identification with senior women and less likely to perceive senior women as role models with legitimate authority (Ely, 1994). Hence, not only were senior women scarce, but also their scarcity made them seem unfit as role models. Both factors make role modeling difficult for young women aspiring to leadership.
A study of identity development among young professionals transitioning to more senior roles illustrates how these dynamics may play out for women (Ibarra, 1999; Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2008). Whereas men making the role transition relied on imitation strategies, which involved experimenting with traits and behaviors selected from a broad array of mostly male role models, women tended to rely on true-to-self strategies, transferring to the new role behaviors that had worked for them in the past. Men more aggressively sought to signal credibility by displaying behaviors that conformed to their firm’s norms, even when thesebehaviors felt unnatural. In contrast, women modestly asserted more neutral, uncertain, or qualified images in an effort to avoid disapproval. For example, women sought to prove their competence by demonstrating technical mastery over the long term; in contrast, men were intent on making a positive first impression. Women cited their reliance on ‘substance rather than form’ as a more ‘authentic’ strategy than their male counterparts’, and thus as a source of pride; yet they were also frustrated with their inability to win superiors’ and clients’ recognition. Ironically, women’s attempts to remain authentic ultimately undermined their ability to find and internalize identities that were congruent with the kind of professional they aspired to become.
As others have noted, ‘when the best of their male counterparts have built the foundations of a new identity and are ready to move on, equally high-potential women may still be searching for the raw materials’ (Ely & Rhode, 2010: 393). Lacking a firm foundation, women may have difficulty seeking and receiving the developmental opportunities that could help to cement a leader identity.
Gendered career paths and gendered work: because most organizational structures and work practices were designed when women had only a small presence in the labor force, many taken-for-granted organizational features reflect men’s lives and situations, making it difficult for women to get on — and stay — the course to leadership (Acker, 1990, Bailyn, 2006, Hewlett, 2007). For example, the conventional career path to senior roles in many companies has included formal rotations in sales or operations, jobs men are more likely to have had than women. Yet those requirements may be based on narrow construals or outdated assumptions about the kinds of experiences that best prepare a person for leadership (Kolb, Williams, & Frohlinger, 2010). Organizations may also better support men to undertake such careers. For example, expatriation arrangements for career-enhancing global assignments often assume a ‘trailing spouse’ who has no career and can easily move — an arrangement far fewer women than men are likely to have (Kolb & Williams, 2000). How work is valued may similarly favor men, making their bids for leadership seem more valid. Research suggests that visible, heroic work, more often the purview of men, is recognized and rewarded, whereas equally vital, behind-the-scenes work (e.g. building a team, avoiding crises), more characteristic of women, tends to be overlooked (Fletcher, 1994). Now taken as the sine qua non of organizational life, these practices appear to be gender-neutral but cumulatively place women at a disadvantage, despite a lack of discriminatory intent.
The result is a vicious cycle: people see men as better fit for leadership roles partly because the paths to such roles were designed with men mind; the belief that men are a better fit propels more men into leadership roles, which in turn reinforces the perception that men are a better fit, leaving gendered practices intact. Thus, a challenge for women is to construct leader identities in spite of the subtle barriers organizations erect to women’s leadership advancement.
Women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors: If constructing a leader identity is a fundamentally relational endeavor, then people’s informal networks should play a key role in the process of becoming a leader. Informal networks can shape career trajectories by regulating access to jobs; channeling the flow of information and referrals; creating influence and reputation; supplying emotional support, feedback, political advice, and protection; and increasing the likelihood and speed of promotion (e.g. Burt, 1992; Granovetter, 1985; Higgins & Kram, 2001; Ibarra, 1993; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Westphal & Milton, 2000). In other words, the composition of one’s informal network can open doors to leadership opportunities, determine who will see and grant (or not) one’s leadership claims, and shape what one learns in the process. Systematic differences in men’s and women’s formal organizational positions, together with people’s preference to interact with others of the same sex, yield differences in the composition and structure of men’s and women’s networks (Ibarra, 1992; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001), which in turn can affect their ability to construct a credible leader identity. In settings where men predominate in positions of power, women have a smaller pool of high-status, same-gender contacts on which to draw and fewer ties to powerful, high-status men (Ibarra, 1992). Both white women and women of color cite lack of access to influential colleagues with whom to network as a major barrier to advancement (Catalyst,Women in Corporate Leadership, 2003; Giscomb & Mattis, 2002). Moreover, the ties women do have tend to be less efficacious: men’s network ties provide more informal help than either white or black women’s (McGuire, 2002), and men’s mentors are more likely than women’s to get them promoted (Ibarra, Carter, & Silva, 2010). On the flip side, powerful, high-status men tend to support and channel career development opportunities to male subordinates, whom they judge as more likely to succeed than women (McGuire, 2002). Thus, women’s networks yield fewer leadership opportunities, provide less visibility for their leadership claims, and generate less recognition and endorsement.
Women and men also use their networks differently. Whereas men’s networks are homophilous (i.e. mostly men) and multi-purpose, women tend to build functionally-differentiated networks, obtaining instrumental access from men and friendship and social support from women (Ibarra, 1992). Women’s bifurcated approach is partly pragmatic: men are better resourced, and women are easier for women to relate to on a personal level (Ragins & Kram, 2007). Yet this bifurcation can detract from workplace centrality (Groysberg, 2008; Ibarra, 1992) and interfere with building the kind of deep, trusting relationships with powerful men that are often necessary for promotion, especially when performance in the next role is hard to predict (Kanter, 1977). Differences between women’s and men’s networks may also stem from reluctance women may feel to undertake the instrumental activities required to build a strong network. Women may fear that these activities will appear inauthentic and overly instrumental. In a business school experiment designed to test whether this fear is valid, two groups of students were asked to discuss a case about a venture capitalist whose network-building skills were superlative (Flynn, Anderson, & Brion, unpublished manuscript). The cases were identical, with one exception: for one group, the case protagonist was named Heidi Roizen, and for the other, Howard Roizen. Following the case discussion, students rated the protagonist. Consistent with previous research (see Heilman & Parks-Stamm, 2007), they rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, but saw Howard as more likeable, genuine, and kind, and Heidi as more aggressive, self-promoting, and power-hungry. Anticipating this judgment, women may hold back from building sufficiently strong networks to support their leadership ambitions.
Women leaders’ heightened visibility: some women rise to leadership positions in spite of these challenges, but structural impediments and cultural biases continue to shape their developmental and leadership experiences. As women rise in the hierarchy, they become increasingly scarce; as women become scarce, they become more visible and subject to greater scrutiny. Under the microscope, women can become risk-averse, overly focused on details, and prone to micro-manage (Kanter, 1977; Kram & McCollom-Hampton, 1998), losing sight of their larger purpose as leaders. Cultural attitudes toward women in authority compound the problem. Some women manage the competence-likeability trade-off by downplayingfeminine qualities in the interest of conveying competence, while others attempt to strike the perfect balance between the two. Either way, being overly invested in one’s self-image can be self-defeating. When people are focused on how they are coming across to others, they divert emotional and motivational resources away from the larger purposes at hand (for a review, see Crocker & Park, 2004; Steele, 2010). While any leader can become overly focused on self-preservation and self-image, heightened visibility and identity contradictions may be a particular trigger for women leaders.
In short, cultural and organizational biases that inadvertently favor men impede the identity work of talented, ambitious women in or aspiring to leadership roles. Below, we describe how women’s leadership programs can help women address these challenges.