Women seeking leadership have historically been hampered by stereotypical beliefs that they don't - and shouldn't - behave actively, confidently, with agency. Leaders need to be agentic, shaping an organisation toward a desired vision. But traditional gender roles demand that women take a more nurturing, passive stance, and when they do not, as copious research from the 1980s and 1990s found, they are met with disapproval.
However, society has changed over the decades, to the extent that agency in female leaders may no longer be an impediment. However, researchers Renata Bongiorno, Paul Bain and Barbara David suspected that the lifting of this barrier may reveal another, more subtle one for women leaders: that non-agentic behaviour is unfairly punished.
Why might this be? Real-life demonstrations that women can demonstrate agentic behaviour enter into culture (and are propagated through media and narratives) and change baseline beliefs. But these successes may be considered curious exceptions, with the associative link between 'leader' and 'male' still largely intact. This means that women may be considered as possible leaders, but scrutinised much more carefully for any evidence of non-leadership behaviour - scrutiny that men, as 'leaders-in-waiting' - may escape. There already exists some evidence that men have a freer hand in leadership - they receive positive endorsements for a wider range of leadership styles than female leaders do.
Bongiorno and her colleagues' first study presented students with manuscripts that detailed a speech on action on climate change. In a first condition the speech was designed to be assertive, with unapologetic speech and italicised components to denote emphasis. The other was tentative, containing hedges, hesitations and qualifiers. The speech was attributed to a male or female politician, who participants then rated in terms of likeability, perceived influence and agency. After controlling for communality (a measure of the speaker's warmth and sensitivity), the sample of 167 partcipants rated the male politician's likeability and influence the same regardless of the agency of his speech. But the female politician was rated more poorly on both measures when her speech was tentative rather than assertive. When acting assertively, the male and female leaders were rated the same way, but when the male example became tentative, he received a free pass that his female counterpart didn't.
A second study replicated this using audio speeches and a topic more personally relevant to their student sample, tuition fees. The only difference in findings was that in this case the assertive female leader was rated as even more likeable than the male one. My one nit to pick with this is that having the audio produced by four different actors (two men, two women) introduces a lot of variance. Perhaps the agentic and non-agentic women have vocal attributes that really set them apart in terms of likeability, whereas the men were much of a muchness.
As the authors note, this is a subtle form of prejudice. It is legitimate to hold your leaders to certain standards of agency - it is part of the job. But observers – both men and women in this study – are far more forgiving of men when their behaviours deviate from this. We still need to understand why, or the many whys: there may be unfairly high expectations that women demonstrate 'female capability', whereas others may use this as a safe outlet to express sexism. And while leadership is still dominated by men, the curiosity factor of female leadership may draw attention and disproportionate scrutiny. It's on us to be aware that successful leaders can operate in many different ways, whether they are male or female.