It’s not uncommon to hear negative adjectives used in society to describe women leaders in comparison to their male counterparts. Too “cold” and “bossy”, in the case of Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton or Margaret Thatcher. Too “nice” and “soft”, in the case of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, for her position on foreign policy issues. How do gender stereotypes at work affect women’s career development?

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How gender stereotypes work in the workplace

Misperceptions about women in the workplace can lead to complex and frustrating situations. On the one hand, if women are not friendly enough, they may be seen as cold or uncooperative, which could generate a negative reaction from their colleagues or superiors. On the other hand, if women are perceived as “too nice” or “conciliatory” they may face difficulties in being hired for competitive jobs.

In both cases, these perceptions are based on outdated gender stereotypes at work that do not take into account women’s skills, talents and experience.


People assume that women are more generous and fairer than men.

 In a very interesting recent study, Harvard Business School professor Christine Exley examined this misperception and its implications for women. She found that many people assume that women are more generous and fairer than men when it comes to distributing economic resources, which may make employers less likely to offer higher salaries to women.

Exley and his fellow researchers first gathered around 800 participants to take part in a series of classic economic games. In one of these games, players had to decide how to divide resources between themselves and their peers. Participants were then asked to predict the percentage of men and women who would choose to keep more resources for themselves rather than divide it equally with their partner.

In all games, there were no significant differences in how men and women divided the resources. However, participants thought that women were more likely to divide them more equally. That is, participants underestimated how generous men would be and overestimated how generous women would be.

p id=”gender-ste”>“In a variety of contexts, people think that women are more generous and equality-oriented than men. I was surprised at the extent to which we couldn’t find any context in which these differences in beliefs didn’t disappear,” says Exley. The reality is that men and women have similar behaviours and beliefs around these values.


una mujer empresaria ejecutiva volando sobre una flecha azul para representar los estereotipos de genero en el liderazgo

How gender stereotypes affect the way women lead

The problem with stereotypes is that they can affect the way women are perceived in leadership roles. When women are assumed to be too nice or too good to lead, they may face greater resistance to moving up the career ladder and being taken seriously in their leadership role. This can be especially problematic when the corporate culture is based on the idea that leaders should be tough and relentless.


Men’s and women’s personalities hardly differ in leadership roles

Research from the University of Antwerp (Belgium) shows that women and men in top positions have many more similarities than differences in attitude and personality. Both have the profile of archetypal leaders, with a strong emphasis on characteristics such as assertiveness, strategic thinking and decisiveness.

“What we can deduct from this is that the ‘leadership profile’ in many organisations is still interpreted on the basis of more ‘masculine characteristics’, which can be an additional barrier for many women. In fact, countless studies have shown that women who excel in characteristics traditionally associated with male leadership are seen by their employees as bossy, arrogant, ‘shrill’ and unfeminine, which puts their chances of promotion at risk,” explains Bart Wille, Assistant Professor of Personnel and Organisational Development at the University of Antwerp.

While there’s still much to be done, it’s important to note that younger generations are showing signs of change and hope. 39% of women under 40 would be more interested in moving into management positions if they were more flexible, reflecting a change in expectations and values compared to previous generations.

It is essential to understand that personality and leadership characteristics are not determined by gender.  We must continue to work together to create more inclusive and flexible work environments, where all people have the opportunity to advance their careers, regardless of their gender.