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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,

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 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 similar initiatives. 

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 work with." 

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 motivated.” 

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 groups." 

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 violation." 

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.” 

The paper, “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 

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