Women who assert themselves on behalf of their teams get more credit for leadership than men do, study finds
October 23, 2015
For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642, firstname.lastname@example.org
The latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau
of Labor Statistics tell a familiar story: women account for over half the
workers in managerial, professional and related occupations but for only about
one fourth of the CEOs. And hopes to rectify this imbalance encounter a
conundrum that is equally familiar: while leadership is closely associated with
assertive and take-charge behaviors (what scholars call "agentic"
behaviors), much research has found that women are commonly penalized for them.
Now a new study, while hardly offering
a definitive answer to women's under-representation in C-suites, provides
tangible encouragement about prospects for emergence of female leadership.
Based on an analysis of patterns in self-managing teams, a paper in the current
issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that, far from
being penalized for assertive, take-charge initiatives on the team's behalf,
women get more credit for leadership than men do for undertaking them.
Indeed, since women in general proved
no more effective than men in their leadership initiatives, the paper refers to
this phenomenon as "over-emergence," which it defines as "cases
when an individual's leadership emergence...is actually higher than the
individual's leadership effectiveness."
Such over-emergence, the study makes
clear, was not in the natural order of things, given that the natural
inclination of the 36 largely male teams that made up the study sample was to
see male teammates as leaders. In the words of the paper's authors, Klodiana
Lanaj of the University of Florida and John R. Hollenbeck of Michigan State
University, "all else equal, there was a direct bias against women when it
came to leadership emergence."
Yet, when women disturbed this
equilibrium through such agentic undertakings as planning and organizing the
team's work or suggesting creative ways to tackle problems or going outside the
team for new resources, they got more credit for leadership than men did for
Thus does the study go a step beyond
the lament of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who famously expressed regret that
"we hold ourselves back in ways both big and small by lacking
self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be
leaning in." Comments Prof. Lanaj: "Women not only gain by leaning in
but gain disproportionately compared to male colleagues. In effect, they enjoy
a bonus for leaning in."
What accounts for this? The study
attributes it to the fact that it runs counter to the historic association of
agentic traits with men and communal traits (like supportiveness and
congeniality) with women, and therefore makes a particularly strong impression
on teammates. In the words of the paper, "expectancy-disconfirming behaviors
attract perceptual attention from others and contribute disproportionately to
evaluations of actors."
To the authors' surprise, though,
"expectancy violation," as they also call it, did not work to the
advantage of men whose social skills exceeded male norms. "While research
has shown communal traits to benefit men in work situations," says Prof.
Lanaj, "the participants in our study did not associate them with
leadership, even while they judged them vital to group functioning. Helpful though
they may be, social skills apparently don't get individuals of either gender
thought of as leaders."
The paper's findings derive from
extended team projects carried out by 181 MBA candidates – 72% men – at a large
research university. The students, whose average age was about 28 and average
work experience about four years, were assigned to five-person, self-managing
teams that functioned over the course of a school year. All teams had at least
one woman, and 40% had two.
Participants provided survey data at
three points. A survey before the start of the school year dealt with general
personality. A second, six weeks into the year, asked the students to rate
their teammates (on a scale of 1/”not at all” to 5/”to a very great extent”) on
three types of leadership behaviors long identified in the scholarly literature
as contributing to team performance – 1) task behaviors, 2) boundary-spanning
behaviors, and 3) social behaviors, the first two classified as agentic and the
third as communal.
Task behaviors were probed by such statements
as "organizes the work and keeps others focused on getting it done
efficiently," "takes personal responsibility for getting the work
done," and "has new and creative ideas for solving problems and
getting the work done."
Boundary-spanning was assessed by such
statements as "goes outside the team to bring in new resources that help
the team work effectively" and "gets support for the team with
important people outside the team."
Social behaviors were gauged by such
statements as "helps settle conflicts between members of the team"
and "makes the work pleasant and comfortable by being happy and easy to
Finally, a third survey, conducted four
months after the second, probed team members’ leadership emergence by
eliciting teammate responses to such statements as "assumes leadership in
the team," "leads the conversation in the team," and
"influences team goals and decisions," and probed leadership
effectiveness with such statements as “is a very good leader,” “knows
how to organize and coordinate people,” and “knows how to get people
Male team members were found to be more
likely than female teammates to engage in task behaviors and were rated
significantly higher in leadership emergence, prompting the
authors to observe that "one reason for women's under-representation in
senior management could be because women perform fewer agentic behaviors in
Still, their higher ratings in
leadership emergence notwithstanding, men scored no higher than their female teammates
in leadership effectiveness, leading the authors to write that "all else
equal, there was a direct bias against women when it came to leadership
emergence that resulted in men over-emerging as leaders."
At the same time, female team members
who did engage in either task behaviors or boundary-spanning
behaviors were rated significantly higher in leadership emergence than
male teammates who did likewise. Indeed, in the words of the study, "women
who engage in team-relevant agentic behaviors will over-emerge as
leaders relative to men enacting the exact same behaviors, due to…expectancy
In conclusion, the authors concede that
the advantage enjoyed by women who essay agentic behaviors “is not the ultimate
solution to women’s under-representation in corporate management…Still, having
said that, we believe that there is value in being able to offer a way out for
women who want to emerge as leaders in small groups.” More specifically, “someone
who may happen to be a candidate for leadership under-emergence (e.g., an
introverted woman) can take active steps to engage in the type of behavior
identified here as triggering perceptions of leadership emergence.”
Adds Prof. Lanaj: “Given the considerable
research that finds women are penalized more than men for asserting themselves,
it seems fairly clear that we are disadvantaged in that way, particularly when
self-assertion is on behalf of our individual self-interest. What our study
adds to the mix is the insight that, when women’s assertive or take-charge initiatives
are in the service of a team, they not only are accepted but make a greater
impression than similar endeavors by men. That may not be commensurate with the
resentment we encounter from self-promotion, but it strikes me as significantly
enhancing prospects for greater female organizational leadership.”
“Leadership Over-Emergence in Self-Managing Teams: The Role of Gender and
Countervailing Biases," is in the October/Novembers issue of the Academyof Management Journal.This peer-reviewed publication is
published every other month by the Academy, which, with close to 19,000 members
in 111 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to
management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy
of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of
Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy
of Management Discoveries.