Do female leaders get penalized for being “too” assertive?
The answer is definitely yes, according to our research. But there are big exceptions to that rule that give women plenty of leeway to take charge.
It isn’t hard to find claims that people react differently to women than men in leadership roles. Supporters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign argue that calls for her to smile more, or “yell” less, are evidence that she is held to a different standard than her arguably grumpier (male) opponents. A #banbossy campaign by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg sought to eradicate a word that is said to be aimed at women but not men.
To test this popular view, my colleague Larissa Tiedens, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and I recently synthesized 71 studies testing reactions to people who behave assertively. We found that women, on average, were disparaged more than men for identical assertive behaviors. Women were particularly penalized for direct, explicit forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking a neighbor to turn down the music. Dominance that took a verbal form seemed especially tricky for women, compared with men making identical requests.
Yet we found that women weren’t penalized for assertiveness that was expressed through nonverbal means—such as through expansive bodily stances or physical proximity. Likewise, they weren’t penalized for using paraverbal cues, such as speaking loudly or interrupting.
This new finding opens up possibilities for women, who may feel they face a Catch-22 in their professional roles: being effective leaders without being penalized for being effective leaders. It certainly isn’t ideal—or fair—but by using these alternative expressions of leadership, women can sidestep the prejudices that make it hard to keep the respect and admiration of their team.
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