Jane is a PI at a research laboratory and has been asked by the lab director to be team leader for a new, high-profile project. The other team members are mostly male, some of whom have served as team leaders for previous projects. Jane has never been selected before, but was tapped in this case because she is the acknowledged expert on the topic of this new project. Jane is very excited about this new challenge and dives right in, setting up meetings and organizing plans for tackling the project.
She wants to show that she's a capable leader by taking charge and being decisive. In the first meeting with her team, she lays out her plan for the project, assigning different members to tasks based on their respective areas of expertise. As she is going through her plan, she notices several people frowning and others who are making inaudible, but clearly critical comments to their neighbors. When she finishes, no one says anything...they just sit and stare. The atmosphere in the room is definitely hostile. Later, Jane learns that her team members have complained to the director that she is too "bossy" and "dictatorial". Jane is mystified by this reaction because on other projects male team leaders typically set forth the overall plan and assigned roles in exactly the same way she did.
What happened to Jane in this hypothetical scenario is not uncommon. Women who display traits normally associated with strong leaders (assertive, independent, dominant, out-spoken) are criticized as being "bossy" or, worse, the other "b word". In contrast, if a woman behaves in a more feminine way (soft-spoken, hesitant, nurturing), she is judged to be a poor leader. A recent paper Are Leader Stereotypes Masculine? A Meta-Analysis of Three Research Paradigms explores the classic no-win situation that women leaders may experience. This work is summarized in The Glass Hammer, a website for women executives.
The problem lies in the inconsistent expectations for leaders and for feminine behavior. Leaders are expected to behave in a dominant fashion, be assertive and outspoken--characteristics that are consistent with stereotypical male behavior. A man behaving like a leader is more readily accepted. However, a woman who displays normal leadership qualities is viewed as being presumptuous; her behavior clashes with the feminine stereotype. This Catch-22 situation is sometimes referred to as the Double Bind.
These leadership stereotypes work against women, sometimes in a subtle way, but can have a definite effect on a woman's career. If an assertive, outspoken woman is passed over for a job or promotion because she's judged to be "overbearing", while a man with the same characteristics is hired, this is discrimination. Similarly, if a woman is seen as being less qualified for a leadership position because she's "too nice" and is not selected on this basis, this too is discrimination. The key here is that a decision is made based on gender stereotypes, not on actual capabilities. The fact that such an action would be considered discriminatory and illegal would probably come as a surprise to some people who hold such beliefs (e.g., based on traditional social values or religious beliefs). They may view women (and some men) with predominately communal attributes (cooperative, nurturing, caring) as being incapable of being strong leaders. However, anyone who makes hiring or promotion decisions based on such reasoning may find themselves in very hot water.
Not all women in science have problems in terms of leadership. For some, their leadership style may coincide with the expectations of the organization. In academic settings, communal behaviors are compatible with teaching and training, so that women may safely display such characteristics without detracting from their overall role as a leader. However, in other science jobs, mostly involving research and other competitive endeavors, there may be a greater expectation for a leader to be more aggressive, forceful, confident, and outspoken. It is in this setting that the organizational expectations for leader behavior and female behavior are major determinants of a woman's experience...and, ultimately, her career success. If the expectation in the organization is for the Command and Control type of leader and a woman's natural inclination is to be something else, there will be problems. Some men may also run into this conundrum and have similar difficulties being viewed as capable leaders.
A woman (or man) who is unaware of leadership pitfalls may fall prey to such biases. She may think that her problems with subordinates or superiors or her failure to advance in the organization are her fault. She may begin to question her capabilities, which leads to a loss of confidence and a downward spiral effect on her overall performance. By itself, leadership difficulties may not be overwhelming, but may tip the balance along with the added pressures to publish, bring in high-profile grants, and balance family and work. This is what I suspect contributes to the "leaky pipeline". I also think that subtle disadvantages for women and advantages for men compound over time, leading to greater disparity at each career transition. Women in STEM fields see others (men) who do not have to work as hard and/or seem not to have the same difficulties. The failure to meet expectations has an increasingly greater impact as a woman advances from student to professional. This is extremely discouraging.
When women are given opportunities to perform in a leadership role, they may find the position difficult or they may even completely fail...and never recognize why. Superiors, co-workers, and subordinates may unknowingly contribute to such failures because of their biases. Some women eventually decide they are just not cut out to be a scientist or engineer and quit.
The disadvantages from various sources accumulate over a career, until a breaking point is reached. Leadership bias is only one of several potential ways a woman may be disadvantaged. However, it's interesting that leadership skills increase in importance with each step up the career ladder from student to post-doc to assistant professor/junior scientist to tenured professor/senior scientist and beyond. Lacking any formal leadership training (and the natural acceptance afforded men in leadership roles), a woman is at a huge disadvantage. Without leadership skills (or savvy about avoiding gender-leader inconsistencies), a woman may become increasingly disadvantaged as she is faced with more and more leadership responsibilities at each career transition.
So, what can women do? One obvious answer is to be aware of leadership pitfalls and how inconsistencies between organizational expectations and gender roles may arise. Developing good leadership skills is also important. But what leadership styles work for women and why? In the next post, I consider three options women have to choose from in a leadership role.