Leadership: Tough emotions test for women

Thursday July 29 2021
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For women, the road to leadership is more fraught with difficulty and overcoming bias and societal stereotypes that pervade the subconscious bias of their subordinates and superiors alike. PHOTO | POOL

By Business Daily Africa

Thousands of us aspire to hold leadership positions in our organisations. Whether in government, parastatals, banks, cooperatives, universities, technology firms, or insurance companies and everything in between, employees jostle for the right to lead teams, departments, and whole entities. But becoming a proficient effective leader proves difficult and often a lonely arduous journey for many.

However, for women, the road to leadership is more fraught with difficulty and overcoming bias and societal stereotypes that pervade the subconscious bias of their subordinates and superiors alike.

Some progress has been made as shown in widescale surveys conducted by Kim Elsesser and Janet Lever that a slight majority of respondents indicate that they hold no preference for which gender of boss they want to report to.

However, among those who do have a gender preference for their supervisor, workers are twice as likely to prefer a male boss instead of a female one. But in 360-degree evaluation equivalents, men rated female bosses more favourably while women rated male bosses more favourably.

Why the overall preference for male leaders? First, we must understand some of the research highlighting the many obstacles that women must overcome in the workplace.

David Smith, Judith Rosenstein, and Margaret Nikolov conducted a study of 81,000 military performance reviews to find that on objective measures, men and women scored equally. On subjective measures, men and women were assigned similar quantities of positive attributes comments.


Ten positive words were generally used repeatedly to describe men, such as analytical, competent, dependable, confident, and logical, while positive words to describe women were only four that included compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic, and organised.

Conversely, men were given substantially fewer negative comments than women with only two recurring negative attributes of arrogant and irresponsible.

Meanwhile, women were assigned far more negative comments subjectively that were distributed among 12 negative words, including inept, selfish, frivolous, passive, scattered, etc. The subjective bias here is staggering especially remembering that on objective measures males and females scored equally. Women were given subjective review verbiage that mirrored societal attitudes and stereotypes that when contained in the job performance evaluations were then more difficult for those same women to gain promotion and new jobs than the men evaluated. The negative attributes assigned to women were harsher than those assigned to men.

Then at the leadership level, qualitative interviews with employees in Kenya often highlight their concerns with whether a female leader will rely on emotional decision-making and reactions.

Victoria Brescoll published robust research that shows the emotion bias in Western countries too. Women must navigate difficult paradoxical Catch-22 leadership scenarios that men do not face. First, women must critically decide how much emotion they will show in the workplace, knowing that their subordinates already unfairly expect them to be more emotional.

So, even small displays of emotion cause exaggerated confirmations of stereotypes in the minds of their workers. But second, on the other hand, if women do not express emotions, then they are thought of as too cold and failing to fulfill their societal obligation to be warm and caring. Third, women must navigate which types of emotions to express. Women who show anger, pride, or irritation then suffer disdain by their staff at disproportionate levels than men who may express those same emotions.

Melissa Williams and Larissa Tiedens looked at 63 research studies that showed that when women show dominance in the workplace by expressing specific direct demands, it unfairly harms their likability relative to men. The researchers linked the decreased likability because women showing dominance were going against established societal gender stereotypes.

So, the next time you see a woman business or political leader whether Martha Karua, Debra Mallowah, Ednah Otieno, Jennifer Riria, Juliana Rotich, Esther Passaris, or Nancy Ng’ang’a among many many others, recognise that they deserve our respect because they overcame greater challenges to reach their lofty heights as titans of industry and government.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor