A “strong military type of leader” or a “b****”?

A “strong military type of leader” or a “b****”? Student evaluations of male and female leaders

Denise Salin, Associate Professor, Hanken

A lot of previous research has shown that employees expect men and women – including male and female leaders – to behave differently in the workplace. Men are expected to be agentic, that is to be assertive and driven, whereas women to a higher extent are expected to be communal, that is to be warm and show concern for relationships. Female leaders who are competent and assertive do not conform to this stereotype and are as a result often disliked for their gender-incongruent behaviour.

To test if strong female leaders are still evaluated more negatively that their male counterparts 160 Hanken students were asked to rate an authoritarian and a participative leader on different dimensions. Half of the students got a description where the authoritarian leader was male and the participative leader female and the other half a description where the authoritarian leader was female and the participative leader male. With the exception of the names (male or female name) and pronouns (he or she) the stories were identical word by word.

This study analyzed the differences in how the male authoritarian leader and the female authoritarian leader were rated. Interestingly, male students rated the male leader higher on effectiveness and female students rated the female leader higher. Students thus saw the leader of the same sex as more competent. However, when asked how willing they were to work for the leader and if they would recommend this person for a higher managerial position both male and female students expressed a preference for the male leader. Also, in class discussions the students held very different images of the male and female leader, although the stories had been identical. The male leader was described as “old school” and a “strong military type of leader”, whereas much more derogatory terms, including the “b-word” were used to describe the woman. When comparing the male and female participative leader, the gender differences were much less pronounced.

The results of this study are in line with previous research. However, many students and employees seem to be convinced that such stereotypes are a thing of the past and that such stereotypes no longer prevail in countries that do well in international rankings of gender equality. Therefore, it is of importance to note that business school students in Finland in 2013 still react so differently to male and female leaders. Making students aware of their own stereotypical way of thinking enables in-depth and engaging discussions about the role of gender stereotypes in work life.

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