Role congruity theory of prejudice towards female leaders

A woman holding a mug with a label saying: like a boss

How do I get a promotion? This is a topic that crops up in our coaching practice and workshops. Women face barriers to career advancement in senior leadership roles, even though there is little or no gender difference in the ability to lead (and generally research finds women tend to be better leaders). Even so, men continue to dominate top leadership positions. So what contributes to this disparity? And what can be done about it?

In 2018, Wille et al examined gender differences at both executive and non-executive levels. The study found that personality trait differences were smaller between the genders at executive level when compared to non-executive employees. They also found that executives in both genders tend to display archetypal “leader personality". This personality is characterised with assertiveness, high-level strategic thinking, and decisiveness. In simple terms, the higher a woman progresses in her career, the more she will start to display traits that are perceived as masculine. One of the implications is that female leaders who are assertive and dominant may be regarded as unfeminine. And thus these women are being interpreted as bossy and arrogant.

Role congruity theory directly addresses the consequences of the stereotypes that society holds of men and women (Eagly and Karau, 2002). Basically, leader characteristics are masculine and are not in character with what is expected of women. This perceived incompatibility between the female gender and leadership role leads to two forms of biases:

  • Women are less favoured as potential leaders
  • Evaluations of women leaders are less approving

As a result, there are fewer women in senior leadership roles. This has three main implications for gender equity in organisational leadership.

  1. The “glass ceiling” — fewer female leaders contributes to the "glass ceiling" phenomena. It is a barrier of prejudice and discrimination that excludes women from higher level leadership positions.
  2. The pipeline problem myth — fewer female leaders falsely reinforces the idea that we have a pipeline problem.
  3. The spotlight effect — less women in higher management means they stand out and are subject to greater scrutiny (Ely et al, 2011). Thus making it harder for women who have taken up a leadership role to be successful in it.

To combat this bias and to create a more equal culture, organisations can:

  • Strive to raise awareness of gender-based devaluation and biases against gender stereotypes.
  • Leaders must model the behaviours the organisation wants to embed in their culture.
  • Reduce misconceptions of ability by providing feedback training and formal leadership potential feedback.
  • Standardise career levelling by defining clear expectations at each level and adopt programs for career planning.
  • Review your career growth framework for use of language that might unintentionally reinforce the bias around leadership traits.
  • Put in place practices that support a balance between work and family obligations for all genders.
  • Review your talent pipeline, from recruitment, promotion, all the way to exec leadership and even the board. Where are you losing the women from, what are the contributing factors, and what else can you try to improve it.

Studies tend to focus on a gender binary, but we acknowledge that these biases and discrimination are applied to anyone who does not meet society’s expectation of “a man”.

The current status quo sucks and we all have to work at it and keep talking about this, for anything to start changing. If you’d like support in fostering a more inclusive culture in your business, we can help.

Would you like to know more?

Receive our monthly newsletter