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Why Perception is Key For Female Leaders

A little while ago I wrote about some research from Michigan State University that explored the way gender roles influenced the work we do.  The research suggested that women tended to thrive in more masculine jobs when they described themselves in masculine ways.

It’s an issue that gets to the heart of gender in the workplace.  Is it possible for a woman to remain feminine and survive in a masculine environment, such as the boardroom for instance?

A recent study from researchers at INSEAD and the European School of Management and Technology suggests it may well be.  The key, they suggest, is that the perceptions women have of themselves (as women) have to be positive ones.

“Our research identifies an important ingredient for a successful adaptation of women leaders to their professional roles: positive gender identity,” the researchers reveal.

The importance of positive perceptions

The study found that when woman had a broadly positive perception of being a woman, both in themselves and the cultural expectations of being a woman, they reported significantly less internal conflict about becoming a leader.

In other words, if women felt that being a leader did not require them to compromise their identity as a woman, they reported feeling much more positive, and much less stressed, about taking on leadership roles.

About the research

The research consisted of three experiments.  The first saw a group of female business graduates complete a survey on things such as leadership identity, gender identity, and any possible conflicts between both.

The second saw the group of female leaders split into two groups.  One was assigned a positive gender identity, whilst the other was not.  Those in the positive identity group were asked to think about what it was that made them think positively about women, before completing a short written exercise.

The control group, by contrast, were asked instead to focus on things that made them think negatively about women, before also completing the written task.

The final study asked participants in leadership positions to complete an online survey with largely the same questions as those found in the first study.  They were also asked questions on things such as general life satisfaction, stress levels and psychological well being.

The results were pretty consistent across all three experiments.  It emerged that when women had positive gender perceptions, they were much less conflicted by leadership expectations, happier and less stressed.

“It is possible that positive gender identity allows women leaders to not only feel more confident and authentic in their role, but also to be perceived as effective without being punished for behaviors that do not conform to stereotypical leader behaviors,” the authors suggest.

The paper also revealed that these kind of positive perceptions were more likely to emerge when there were female role models working in their organisation.

“Our findings suggest that organizations that commit to developing and retaining female talent should consider not only interpersonal attitudes toward female leaders, but also intrapersonal processes related to women leaders’ self-perception.”


Image: Silicon India

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