our insights

Why are women at the top still having a tough time?

What women in leadership face that their male counterparts do not

You see the sass in her step and the brevity of her direction. Her quick wit, silver tongue and no-nonsense approach, finely tuned to inspire action.

What you don’t see is how, with every interaction, she must temper her natural dominance, soften her competitiveness, and rein in her ability to be decisive.

Caught between the dichotomy of likeability and respect, a woman in leadership faces a conundrum: too nice and she is not respected; too assertive and she is not liked.

When the boss is bossy

Professor Madeliene Heilman discusses how ‘‘prescriptive gendered stereotypes’’ give rise to these biased judgements. Because we expect women to be ‘‘nice’’ we perceive their assertiveness as ‘‘bossiness’’ and their independence as ‘‘hostility’’. We are not trained to see male leaders in the same way, because we don't have the same expectations of them (Heilman, 2012).

Communal traits such as warmth and kindness are often expected of women, whereas agentic traits like confidence and assertiveness are predominantly reserved for men. To confuse the equilibrium, in order to be effective as a leader, women ‘‘need to show agentic qualities like confidence and determination’’ (Keck, 2019).

Recently appointed CEO of Citi bank, Jane Fraser, reflects on her encounters with this difficulty in presentation. During a speech she gave at a financial industry conference in 2016 in Miami, she commented on her perception of female leaders in the investment banking industry: they looked ‘‘rather scary’’ and dressed ‘‘almost like [men]’’.

Demeanour, posture, tone, and presentation all come into play for a woman in leadership. It is not simply about putting on the face of authority and stepping out to lead the pack. There is the constant questioning of how one is being perceived.

Who holds the gavel?

While it is human nature for us to place judgements on one another, an article in the Huffington Post suggests that competition between the sexes is far less prominent than that amongst women themselves. Female to female aggression in the workplace has increased by 50% in the last decade, according to Susan Murphy and Pat Heim (In the Company of Women, 2016).

Psychologist Joyce Benenson dedicated much of her life to studying this phenomenon and concluded that the primal instinct of survival is what drives competitiveness between females: that historically, female new-borns were considered less valuable than males and needed to work harder to stay alive, proving their worth over others of their kind.

David Amodio, Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, contests, advocating that all human beings innately perceive anyone different as a threat because the brain has an evolutionary requirement to do so: ‘The capacity to discern ‘us’ from ‘them’ is fundamental in the human brain.’

It seems then, that a woman at the top is under scrutiny from every direction, leaving her fighting a battle by herself, for herself.

Bending over backwards to conform

In dancing with this dichotomy, women often end up in a precarious position of trying to be two things at once: warm and kind, as well as confident and assertive.

In her book, Lean In (2013), Sheryl Sandberg talks about the difficulty of this duality, ‘When a man is successful, he is well liked. When a woman does well, people like her less.’ It took a candid conversation with Mark Zuckerberg to make her realise that her own fear of scaring people away was prohibiting her from accomplishing what she knew she could achieve.

‘‘If you please everyone, you won’t change anything’’, Mark Zuckerberg said at her first performance review at Facebook.

Sandberg’s response: “Mark was right. Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders – including female leaders themselves.”

What inclusive organisations can do

The primary reason why women at the top are still having a tough time is that they are expected to engage in a level of impression management not required by their male counterparts. This disparity is a key component in understanding how to get comfortable with female leaders. Inclusive organisations have the opportunity to create longstanding culture change through gender-focused interventions.

Gender bias training

The implementation of training and development programmes can help to increase awareness of gender gaps in leadership and expose ways to challenge this.

Gender-neutral assessment criteria

When it comes to performance and review systems, an organisation can strive to ensure that a gender-neutral lens is used to assess leadership behaviours.

Candid conversations

Open forums and discussions can help to shift perceptions of gender stereotyping. Regular, informal meetups can help to promote a feeling of psychological safety, where employees feel safe enough to discuss concerns and talk about mental health.

A commitment to culture shift

Shifts in company culture do not happen overnight. But inclusive organisations can strive towards creating new cultures; ones where women can behave in socially dominant ways without being viewed as lacking, undesirable, or dysfunctional as people or women.


Heilman, M. E. (2012). Gender stereotypes and workplace bias. Research in Organizational Behavior, 32, 113–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2012.11.003

Keck, S. (2019). Gender, leadership, and the display of emphatic anger. Journal of Occupational and Organization Psychology, 92, 953–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12264

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