Today’s Women Leaders Break Through Yesterday’s Stereotypes

Beth Speak

According to a recent article published by The New York Times the deck is stacked against women when it comes to being perceived as a leader.  I don’t buy it!  Times are changing and so are many of the stereotypes surrounding women as leaders.

My opinion is based upon some compelling empirical evidence I have seen firsthand and more importantly in working with groups of energizing, inspiring women leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it’s all sugar plums and rainbows when it comes to women leaders having to overcome the confirmation bias that historically has held us back in being perceived as a leader.  But I am seeing evidence that the perceptions of women as leaders are changing and I believe this is just the beginning.

One source of empirical evidence comes from an analysis of thousands of actual perceptions of women leaders we have gathered and the other comes from a quantitative study of women leaders our firm conducted.

The author of the NYT article summarized a few different studies suggesting that the qualities of a leader are much more associated with men, than women.

  • In one study, when executives attending a workshop were asked to “draw an effective leader,” the image was most often depicted as a male. However, when participants used the word “he,” they were actually referring to both genders.
  • The qualifying characteristics of a leader included: communicates well, confidence, creative, decisive, charismatic, emotional intelligence, listens, open, provides solutions, welcoming.
  • In another study the authors focused on one particular act associated with leadership: speaking up with ideas to move a team or company forward. It’s that the capacity to “take charge,” which is strongly associated with one’s ability to lead, continues to be considered a largely male characteristic.

I reviewed our database containing the perceptions of women leaders as reported by men and women. (We have been developing our database over a number of years.  The perceptions data for women leaders has been developed as part of our Women – Accelerate! Why Hesitate? Program.) Here is a list of the most common clusters of perceptions of women leaders:

  • Approachable/articulate/personable/engaging/friendly
  • Confident/leader/strong/decisive
  • Ambitious/driven/determined/passionate/motivated/results oriented/hard working
  • Intelligent/smart/strategic
  • Perceptive
  • Honest/trustworthy
  • Speaks-up

By comparing the data we have gathered, and continue to gather, on how today’s women leaders are perceived, it is safe to say that confirmation bias and common stereotypes about women as leaders are beginning to erode. However, we have a way to go and it’s no time to let up on enhancing the leadership presence of women.  

Watching and listening to the women leaders working together in our workshops gives me great confidence that many of the pointless barriers that existed in the past will be kicked to the wayside.