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Research shows that female leaders can be just as or more effective than male leaders (Eagly & Carli, 2003; Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt & Van Engen, 2003; Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Powell, Butterfield & Bartrol, 2008; Yoder, 2001). Further, there is evidence that gender diversity in top management teams is related to positive organizational performance (Krishnan & Park, 2005). Yet the evidence shows that female leaders are often perceived as less effective leaders. Appelbaum, Audet and Miller (2003) claim that this perception is based on how we are socialized rather than on leader performance.

Perceptions of gender differences in leadership effectiveness may say more about how women lead than about how well they lead. Some studies of leadership measures (e.g., Bass and Avolio’s (1997) multifactor leadership questionnaire) suggest strong similarities in basic leadership strategies (Antonakis, Avolio & Sivasubramaniam, 2003). Other studies suggest differences in how men and women exercise leadership. Eagly and Johnson’s (1990) meta-analysis showed that women tend to have a more participative and democratic leadership style than men, and that this tendency is seen in both laboratory and field studies. A later meta-analysis showed that women tend to engage in more transformational leadership behaviours, while men engage in more transactional and laissez-faire leadership behaviours (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt & Van Engen, 2003).

Women appear to be less likely than men to use strategies that fit the stereotype of a strong, highly directive leader and that might contribute to the perception that women are not effective leaders. This is ironic, since transformational leadership behaviours are more effective than behaviours associated with other leadership styles (Lowe & Kroeck, 1996). Undoubtedly, leadership styles are not set in stone; both men and women can learn techniques to be more effective leaders and adopt new leadership styles (Appelbaum et al., 2003). However, the belief that women are ineffective as leaders may be a function of the widely held stereotype that leadership requires top-down direction (an activity consistent with masculine stereotypes) rather than collaboration (an activity consistent with feminine stereotypes).

The sex-type of an industry or job can also influence leadership styles of men and women. Leadership styles did not differ between men and women in male-type industries, however, in female-type industries women showed a more interpersonal leadership style (Gardiner & Tiggemann, 1999). Women in all industries perceive more discrimination in the workplace than men, but women in male-type jobs report even more discrimination. Gardiner and Tiggemann (1999) found that in male-dominated industries, female leaders’ mental health suffered when applying interpersonal strategies, whereas male leaders’ mental health improved when they used the same strategies. These findings might be explained by role congruity theory, which proposes that when an individual holds a stereotype about a certain group that is incompatible with the role that group member has taken, the group member will be perceived as less effective in that role by the individual. When applied to gender and leadership, the theory states that employees may show prejudice against female leaders because of the incongruity of the female role and the leadership role (Eagly & Karau, 2002). When this happens, employees perceive female leaders as less effective, leaving the employee with a negative attitude to the female leader or potential leader, making it more difficult for female leaders to advance in the organization.

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