Why We Need to Stop Equating Leadership with Masculinity

Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush, laughing.
March 18, 2016

Have you ever immediately assumed that a doctor, politician, or professor was a man and then later realized your mistake? Maybe you walked into a meeting and assumed that the female client was an assistant or lower-ranking professional and not the CEO.

If so, the moment might have registered an awkward “whoops” and a brief feeling of surprise. But what’s really going on when we assume that those in powerful positions are men? Why does this happen, and what does it mean about how we perceive women leaders? As AAUW’s new research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, finds, the reasons why we equate men and masculinity with leadership have little do with facts and a lot to do with stereotypes and assumptions.

How We Came to Conflate Masculinity with Leadership

According to a study cited in Barriers and Bias, there are no differences in leadership effectiveness between men and women. Yet a meta-analysis of 69 studies on stereotypes and leadership found that stereotypes about leadership are decidedly masculine. History plays a powerful role in helping to create our schemas, or mental frameworks that we use to help us organize and understand the world. And historically, leadership positions haven’t been nearly as accessible to women, especially women of color, as they have been to men.
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Partly because men have held most leadership positions in society for so long, popular conceptions of leadership are infused with stereotypically “masculine” traits, such as aggression, decisiveness, and the willingness to engage in conflict. And the trend is reinforcing; because men easily fit the cultural stereotypes of leadership, they have greater access than women do to leadership roles and face fewer challenges advancing in them.

Male Leaders Are Firm and Assertive, Female Leaders Are Shrill and Bossy

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Why Do Men Still Outnumber Women in Leadership?


As a result of deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, men and women leaders can exhibit the same traits and accomplishments, yet their effectiveness may be perceived differently. Time and time again, female leaders are chided for being too bossy, bitchy, cold, or aggressive: characteristics that are at odds with traditionally “feminine” attributes like compassion, warmth, and submissiveness. This inequity is particularly apparent in the political realm, where women candidates are perpetually attacked for being perceived as uncaring or combative. It’s also rampant in the business world, where women leaders like former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao are labeled as too pushy or ambitious.

How Can We Untangle Masculinity from Leadership?

Increased education and awareness can help us beat our own gender stereotypes about women and leadership. According to one study cited in Barriers and Bias, something as simple as changing the language about leadership activities can have a dramatic effect on women’s engagement as leaders. Another study found that exposing individuals to gender roles that run counter to dominant stereotypes — such as a male midwife or a female mechanic — actually alters the way we form impressions and process social information. Research also suggests that by getting to know your own biases, you can learn to counteract them. Step one is to find out more; read Barriers and Bias and start busting stereotypes about women’s leadership.



How Can We Close the Gender Leadership Gap?

Here’s what individuals, employers, and policy makers can do to help close the gender leadership gap.

A participant in the 2014-15 CAP project at Pacific Lutheran University tears up a piece of paper reading "bossy."

Are You Biased against Women Leaders? Take the Test

This tool tests for unconscious associations, and your results will help further AAUW’s research.


Watch the Barriers and Bias Research Launch Panel

Watch as a panel of experts, moderated by journalist and author Cokie Roberts, discuss the report’s findings.

Renee Davidson By:   |   March 18, 2016

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