This month we switch to gender and leadership in the third of our series of eight leadership and psychology articles by Dr Trevor Simper. Are there really personality differences between male and female leaders? Is it plausible to suggest difference in gender predisposes us to be more effective in specific roles? And which specific personality traits determine a good leader?

Gender and leadership

Even in the relatively gender equal (I use relatively here) societies of the western world- gender inequality in the domains of work and politics dictate that it is still typically men who occupy the top positions. At the time of writing, Europe has 3/5ths of the world’s female political leaders which amounts to 9 out of 27 leaders. Certainly, in Europe gender attitudes have developed (40 years ago there were only 2 female European leaders) but what is it from a psychological perspective that impacts on the disparity in leadership roles between men and women?

Is there genuinely a gender difference in terms of ability to lead? Research tends to suggest no difference/ not much of a difference and, where there is a difference, it is in favour of female leadership, especially if we accept that a transformative leadership style is best. Key questions for us to consider are if there is no or little difference in leader ability by gender- why is there such a gap, given there is a fairly equal number of men and women in the world? Also, we should consider the fact that there are clearly biological differences between males and females and whether this translates into other differences in relation to men and women’s personality types.

There is no suggestion that differences do not exist between men and women. Recent work, for example, has tended to qualify the notion that males and females differ in relation to predilection for, and ability in, mathematical and verbal tasks. Also it may be that females and males have more nurturant and aggressive tendencies respectively. The problem here, however, is not questioning whether there are innate sex differences between men and women, but rather should this equal an uneven situation when it comes to leadership?

Gender and the Big 5

After decades of research, psychologists now tend to agree that personality traits can be broken down into 5 essential traits, commonly referred to as the ‘Big 5’. The Big 5 personality traits relate to: Openness: the degree to which we like new experiences and trying new things; you may well be the sort of person who prefers new and varied activities if you score highly for openness. This is versus a preference for a stricter routine in those who score lower for openness. Conscientiousness or the level of detail and lengths we go to, to make sure things are ‘just so’, if you score highly for conscientiousness, you are more likely to be highly organised and dependable; the opposite is a more spontaneous tendency but could also be seen or interpreted as sloppy and careless. Extroversion, which can mean being the life and soul of a party but, could also just mean you prefer the company and friendship of lots of people rather than a select few- not all extrovert high scorers dance on tables or take up acting. Introverts tend to be more reflective and this can be seen or interpreted as insular or even aloof. Agreeableness is the extent to which you feel the need to get on with others- in high scorers it can be seen as naïve or submissive and the opposite for low scorers, i.e. argumentative and overly critical. Finally, neuroticism is about the extent to which you worry over things, including more minor events- it could manifest itself in being prone to psychological ill health in high scorers- and is also often referred to as emotional stability- in fact emotional stability describes the opposite end of the spectrum to ‘neurotic’. As you can imagine, there are many problems that arise from labelling people. For example, somebody being upset (because something significant has upset them) is not good evidence for labelling them as emotionally insecure. Likewise, there are problems with a strong representation of a specific personality traits- a good example is extroversion, where an argument exists that we over-represent extroverts in many roles in society (for further reading/follow up see Susan Cain’s Ted talk and or her treatise of research on into introversion: Quiet (Cain, 2013). Criticism for the Big 5 model exists, of course, including the notion that there may be traits not covered by the Big 5. Also in response to a questionnaire where we spot a question, for example, asking us about the degree to which we are emotionally stable may bias our response… ‘I am not emotionally unstable!’

There are various scales used to assess how we rate in terms of the Big 5 and it is interesting to see how this relates to our existing perceptions of what ‘type’ we are- do you consider yourself the retiring wall flower or life and soul of the party? Or do you say it depends on the situation and who I am with? Many psychologists will say this doesn’t alter the fact that we do essentially follow these 5 personality traits- and certainly you may feel more gregarious at some times than others (this is often the case with alcohol consumption, for example) and likewise for openness as we may feel more adventurous on holiday. But ultimately, with enough ‘data’ (usually when you have spent enough time together), an individual’s personality will become clear.
Where do you score?

The following is probably the answer to a question any leaders and would be leaders following this blog would want to know: Often conscientiousness, high extroversion and low neuroticism (or high emotional stability) are suggested as the correlates of leadership- so attention to detail and being comfortable presenting yourself publicly combined with being calm under fire, sort of makes sense…?
Another key question here could be to what extent can we change the Big 5?
Opinions certainly vary over the extent to which personality traits are fixed/fluid. The general consensus is that they are relatively stable across the lifespan of an individual- it may be that where individuals are concerned over their own personality profile attention would be best placed on acceptance and coping i.e. essentially accepting the traits you have and working with them. in practice this may involve accepting that I am the sort of person who will never be that ‘open’ but I can also choose occasionally to step outside my comfort zone… but not too far or too often!

Gender and the Big 5
Let’s now consider gender and the Big 5- are there clear personality differences between men and women? Work has of course been carried out in attempt to identify any differences in dominant personality traits amongst men and women- with varied findings. There do however seem to be differences with women scoring higher in certain traits- and sub-sections of these traits than men, for example, agreeableness and conscientiousness but lower on emotional stability. The sub-sections make it slightly more complicated, however, as in terms of extroversion it may well be that specifically it is the positive enthusiasm and sociability aspects on which they score highly but also for extroversion there is the aspect of ‘assertiveness’ and dominance on which they may well score lower. See Wille et al (2018).
From Wille et al (2018).

What happens when you compare male and female leaders with non-leaders?
Here it becomes interesting because despite the points made above relating to male and female differences in personality traits- Wille et al (2018) compared the personality characteristics of several hundred male and female executives in Europe with many non-exec ‘controls’ and they found that although there were considerable distinctions to make amongst the non-exec female/male participants, these effects largely disappeared amongst the executives.

So, what is going on here? Is it that the female leaders ipso facto have personality traits more similar to male leader traits? (i.e., as they are all leaders) or do they override their own natural traits for the purpose of succeeding in a male dominated arena? This has in fact been argued to be the case, whereby stereotypical views of which traits a leader should possess mean that these traits are exaggerated in women executives who need to inspire/convince subordinates/shareholders/interview selectors of their leadership qualities. Some studies tend to support the notion, e.g., Wille at al (2018) found that the gender differences in personality traits are less persistent or diluted in executive/leadership staff.
The way in which men and women are judged, however, does appear also to differ- whereby we expect dominance and assertiveness in men leaders and if they act against this stereotype (i.e., are overly nurturing or communal), we may see them as weak and ineffective. This however works in the opposite direction for women where assertiveness and dominance are then interpreted as bossy and arrogant. Which connects with Eagly’s Role Congruity Theory.

Role Congruity Theory

Considering the way in which men and women typically view the roles of a woman and the roles of a man will be useful here. Men are the hunter gatherers and women the nurturing child carers, right? Perhaps historically this represents how life was ordered, but things have changed considerably since the days of hunter gatherers! Here we consider the Role Congruity Theory (Eagly, 2002) which posits that men and women are subject to gender stereotypes with men being more assertive and controlling/dominant and women more caring, nurturing and gentle. The problem here is that if you are an assertive and dominant woman you are seen as overbearing and subject to nicknames such as those given to Margaret Thatcher, the famous British Prime Minister (Iron Lady and Attila the Hen for examples). At the same time people also may well perceive male leaders as more effective. This In turn may be an explanation for why women seem less motivated to pursue leadership roles- i.e., fear of stereotyping as a ‘ball breaker’. Perhaps for a male to experience the same ‘fear’ you would need to see yourself in a role which is stereotypically female- childcare and domestic chores, meal preparation all being your responsibility while your partner does the paid ‘work’.

Other obstacles to gender equality in terms of leadership include family responsibility, very often the role of childcare and many associated responsibilities are carried out by women who of course are not then free to pursue leadership roles.

Glass ceiling or glass cliff?

It is not, of course simply that women lack the motivation or drive to pursue leadership but also the presence of a glass ceiling or a ‘glass cliff’- the glass ceiling refers to less women than men being promoted or presented with promotion opportunities to leadership positions and the glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam, 2007) suggests that women (when they are appointed) are more likely to be recruited to roles which are the classic ‘poison chalice’ i.e. have positions of leadership with a high risk of failure. Ryan and Haslam supported this theory through experimentation whereby subjects (management graduates, business leaders) were asked to recruit suitable candidates for businesses that were either failing or thriving. What was clear is that women were much more likely to be selected for the failing companies and men to the businesses which were thriving. The participants indicated that they felt they had appointed women to roles which particularly suited their genders skill set.

The leadership styles of men and women

So is there a difference in the leadership styles of men and women? The evidence here seems to range from little or no difference, to small differences which suggest a position whereby there is more autocratic and transactional leadership amongst males and a more transformative, democratic and participative leadership among women (Snaebjornsson and Edvardsson, 2013).

Interestingly women may adapt their leadership style, especially in male dominated industry. Imagine you are a female manager in a massive enterprise where nearly all or all the other managers are men. What are the chances you would seek to minimise the perception that not only your gender, but also your way of leading were different, bearing in mind fear of being seen as less effective than a male manager. Through the lens of gender stereotyping, you may well seek to be even more masculine in your leadership style than the men around you i.e., to reduce the likelihood as being seen as weak or ineffective as compared to male leaders.
(Snaebjornsson and Edvardsson, 2013,)

It is interesting to note that in Snaebjornsson and Edvardsson’s work (2013, in the snippet above) that it was women who were more certain than men that a successful manger would be male and that gender stereotypes are so strong that both men and women tend to use the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to a manger.

So how do you really feel about all this?

Another consideration could be for us to ask the question – are our views real or are they rather the expression of acceptable ‘social norms’? For example: “Would a woman make just as good a manager as a man”? Is a question we might feel the need to answer yes to, as the notion that we would suggest one gender inferior to the other risks social isolation and widespread disapproval. But, does this differ from your real point of view? You can consider this here as no one is recording you…Normative influence is an influence for us to conform with (views and behaviours) of others in society (especially our ‘in group’ members) to gain social approval and avoid social disapproval.

This, however, we should put to one side and actually consider what is going on with the disparity between male and female leadership. There are numerous famous cases of female leaders receiving lower pay whilst doing the same job as a male counterpart and there appears to be a long way to go- despite the point made at the beginning of this article, there appears no to little difference in leadership capabilities between men and women and, where they do appear, these seem to favour women (essentially as there is at least a slight tendency towards transformative approach to leadership in women).

New Zealand
Finally, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, gives us an excellent example of a female leader who is both effective and strong and transformative in her approach. Consider the recent terrorist attack on Christ Church where many people were murdered and the country thrown into turmoil over gun laws- following which the prime minister banned the sale of automatic weapons in New Zealand, provided ongoing support for and donned a head scarf to mourn with the families of the victims.

References/further reading
Snaebjornsson, I.M. and Edvardsson, I.R., 2013. Gender, nationality and leadership style: A literature review. International Journal of Business and Management, 8(1), p.89.
Eagly, A.H. and Karau, S.J., 2002. Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological review, 109(3), p.573.
Cain, S., 2013. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Broadway Books.
Wille, B., Wiernik, B.M., Vergauwe, J., Vrijdags, A. and Trbovic, N., 2018. Personality characteristics of male and female executives: Distinct pathways to success?. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 106, pp.220-235.

Dr Trevor Simper
Motivational Interviewing

Trevor is an MI trainer, coach, researcher and University lecturer and delivers Motivational Interviewing Training in Perth, for beginner to advanced level MI practitioners via workshops and coaching .  If you would like to read more about Trevor and his workshops on Essemy click this link.