Recent years have seen rising concern about the relative absence of women in leadership, with businesses being urged to acknowledge the benefits of a 'female' style of leadership. So what are the effects of such stereotypical views of leadership traits? And are they detrimental not just to women, but to men - and to organisations?
Stereotypes are, in essence, simplified views. They have a valuable place in human interaction: in situations where we need to make rapid judgments about new people, they spare us some of the processing and thinking we might otherwise have to do. If you have never been around royalty, for example, stereotyping them as formal and reserved may help you respond to them respectfully, sparing you from embarrassment and them from offence.
But there are limits to the benefits of assuming someone shares all the characteristics and abilities of their presumed group. When we stereotype leaders on a gender basis, not only do we attribute qualities, experience and behaviours that are based on our own prejudices, but we may also overlook our own in-built assumptions and their influence on how we build relationships and interact. By blinding ourselves to individual differences, we also limit opportunities to work together openly, creatively and innovatively.
Women's presence in the workplace at any level, let alone senior, has been a development mostly of the last century or so, and they have struggled to escape the metaphorical straitjacket of their previously expected roles as caregivers, mothers and nourishers. Centuries of social and cultural narrative take time and conscious effort to contest and challenge.
But while stereotyping undeniably affects women, its impact on men receives less attention. There is a long, daunting list of attributes associated with masculinity. The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory identified a list of eleven key values: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality and pursuit of status. This list implies immense pressure not just to win but to conform, leaving many men feeling obliged to suppress emotions, put others in their place and either climb their way to the top or die trying. Like women, who may have to fight their way out of other people's expectations of kindness and compassion, men have to contest assumptions based solely on their gender rather than their individual values, behaviours and style.
In our workplaces, gender stereotypes take on particular importance where they interact with models of leadership style and behaviour that can be equally over-simplified. While leaders have historically been predominantly male, leadership is not simply about demonstrating competitiveness, defiance and bravery. Leaders must operate in a broad range of ever-shifting situations and relationships, and exhibit more than one style to manage each effectively: they must also be aware of their own style and interpersonal impact. In an increasingly networked world, the importance of relationships and interactions is amplified, although interpreting any corresponding requirement for a more collaborative, flexible and empathetic approach as equating to a need for more female leaders is also to play to the a stereotype that deserves to be approached more thoughtfully and questioningly.
This is not to deny that the historic and continuing under-representation of women at senior levels should be questioned. McKinsey & Company research shows a positive correlation between company performance and the proportion of women serving on their executive board; moreover, companies with the greatest gender diversity in top management posts outperform their sectors in terms of Return on Equity (ROE), operating results and stock price growth. But if most businesses don't consciously adhere solely to traditional masculine leadership concepts, neither do they spend a great deal of time considering their origins or on-going relevance - or the revised concepts that are really required.
In today's matrixed, relationship-based organisations, in which collaboration across functions, geographies and project teams gains new importance, skills in forging connections and inspiring creativity come to the fore. But is responding to this new direction by favouring one gender-stereotypical view of leadership over another really progress? If inter-personal skills and responsiveness are to be recognised as key parts of great leadership, changing the gender of the people wearing a metaphorical straitjacket is surely not the solution. People may have genders, but the word 'best' is - grammatically, at least - neutral: the next generation of leaders, men or women, will need greater flexibility and freedom of movement than even a well-fitted stereotype can ever provide.