Stereotypes that Threaten Women in Leadership

by Aly Ray about a year ago in gender roles

In addition to discussing negative stereotypes that will affect women, this literature review also aims to discuss a) specific negative stereotypes that affect women in leadership, and their perceived leadership abilities, and b) the specific steps and actions that can be taken to combat these stereotypes.

Stereotypes that Threaten Women in Leadership


Women face many difficulties in the workplace, several revolving around leadership, and their perceived ability to lead, especially in male dominant offices and organizations. In recent years, the United States has begun to move towards egalitarian households, where they have traditionally been paternalistic households. Paternalistic households generally included the male/father/husband figure working, and the female/mother/wife remaining at home. Egalitarian households include both parents/partners working, and living in equal roles, contributing to the financial, and physical well-being of the household, and lives dependent on the contributors. Many, if not the majority, would consider this move towards female-male equality to be a stepping stone in history, one that is long overdue. According to data collected in 2017, women now account for 47 percent of the United States workforce (Warner & Corley, 2017).

Although this number reflects a drastic rise in the female workforce, according to a 2014 study, women hold only roughly 20 percent of senior, executive, and CEO positions in high tech industries (Warner et al, 2017). As a group, women face difficulties in climbing the leadership ladder, but women of color face even greater difficulties. “As recently as 2013, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color as board directors at all” (Warner et al, 2017). While it is clear that women have made progress in rights, equality, and professional advancement, when discussing leadership roles, research indicates that women struggle because of perceived stereotypes that have a negative effect on their abilities in management, senior, executive, and CEO positions. This paper will continue to explore the issue with the use of research articles found via Brandman Library.


Articles for the completion of this literature review were discovered by using a broad search strategy. All articles were retrieved from electronic sources via the Leatherby Libraries located in the Chapman University system. Key search terms included: women, leadership, negative, stereotypes, female, and leaders. The use of articles for this review were determined first by date, then relevance of title, followed by reading the abstract, and scanning the article. Specifically, articles with a publication date exceeding twelve years were not used. The purpose of this was to keep all resources, and their published information as accurate and consistent as possible. Articles were excluded if they focused on general workplace stereotypes, and excluded specifically, “female stereotypes.” Articles that could not be accessed passed the abstract were also excluded.

Research Purpose and Questions

The purpose of this literature review is to examine current and peer reviewed research articles, as well as other sources, on specific stereotypes that negatively affect women’s performance specifically in leadership roles. Additionally, this literature review aims to answer two research questions:

  1. What specific negative stereotypes do women in leadership face that affect their perceived leadership abilities?
  2. What specific steps and actions can be taken in and out of the workplace to combat this issue?

The topic of women in leadership has been a focus in diversity consciousness, and conflict management classes. As mentioned before, women account for almost half of the nation’s workforce. This rise in the past 50+ years may be caused by such attention on the subject of stereotypes and female leadership. Many corporations, nationally and globally, will agree that having women in leadership is a necessity, because it creates diversity within the organization. Research shows that being more aware of these stereotypes creates a more inviting and innovative workplace.

Review of the Literature: Research Question 1

Stereotypes are generalized around such appearances and assumptions as ethnicity, culture, sexuality, religion, and even athleticism. This can cause disrupt and unnecessary conflict in the workplace, that generally leads to strain and stress on employees and their organizations. As mentioned before, stereotypes can be a popular topic of discussion in leadership and diversity classes, and further educational settings. Professors may ask students to answer such questions as “define stereotypes,” or “what stereotype have you personally been subjected to and how did it affect you.” In diversity classes, this falls under a discussion of why it can be damaging to an organization’s image, and what specific stereotypes that people, especially women, face.

According to a qualitative study conducted in 2016, gender stereotypes are defined as “…generalizations about the attributes of men and women that are shared in a society, and include both descriptive components (i.e., describing how women and men are) and prescriptive components (i.e., prescribing how women and men should or should not be” (Hoyt and Murphy). Understanding stereotypes is important when discussing women in leadership, because it gives a clear definition and guidelines for researchers to organize their finding for readers. Hoyt et al (2016) explore different stereotypes that threaten women in leadership.

A common stereotype is that women are not aggressive enough for leadership positions. They are viewed as care takers, where men are viewed as assertive. When women display assertive, and/or aggressive behavior within organizations they are then viewed as unstable, and therefore unable to handle stress or manage groups. This is particularly prevalent in male dominated organizations, especially those that have few to no female leaders, or even female employees.

The second threatening stereotype includes: women are too emotional for leadership positions. In the United States, this is one of the strongest, and longest standing stereotypes about women. Researchers have found in the last 30 years that both men and women strongly uphold this stereotype (Brescoll, 2016). This may be due to men historically claiming women as property in an attempt to assert authority, and lay stake to land. Claiming women are more emotional has been shown to maintain authority over leadership positions. This specific stereotype is also used against women as a way to dismiss important ideas, suggestions, opinions, and perspectives (Daft, 2015, p. 333).

The President of the United States (POTUS) is a popular example when examining stereotypes, and masculinity in leadership positions. The position of POTUS has been filled by all men, with women vying for office in more recent times. Research has shown that negative gender stereotypes not only affect women in corporate positions, but also in holding political positions. Anzia and Bernhard (2017) found that women are considered more competent on such issues as “women’s healthcare,” but are not considered as competent on issues involving foreign affairs. However, Anzia (2017) also found that female candidates are considered to be more trustworthy than male candidates, suggesting that stereotypes do not necessarily affect voting outcomes in a negative manner for women. The lack of female candidates and women holding political positions can be attributed to a lower level glass ceiling, “…an invisible barrier that separates women and minorities from top leadership positions” (Daft, 2015, p. 332).

Eagly, Koenig, Mitchell, and Ristikari (2011) also report in their findings that women’s stereotypes are not necessarily negative, but are shaped around women being considered more kind and understanding than their male counterparts. Evidence suggests that leader stereotypes have become less masculine, but the change is not significant enough to completely eradicate female stereotypes. Similar to the findings of Hoyt et al (2016) and Brescoll (2016), Eagly et al (2011) research showed that the stereotypes undermine women’s leadership, and act as a barrier in advancement. It is difficult to be hired into a position as a female if stereotypes already exist within a workplace, lessening the chances of employment, or consideration for promotion, thus creating an imbalance in gender equality higher up in organizations.

Review of the Literature: Research Question 2

The various literature findings showed there are numerous ways in which women and the organizations they work for can combat negative stereotypes. As described by Bucher (2015), the most effective technique is for organizations to acknowledge the importance of diversity, and use these differences to both the employees’ and organizations’ benefit. In Bucher’s literature, he also discusses that women are among a group that will “…account for the vast majority of new entries in the workforce” (2015, p. 8). This is partially due to the United States moving towards households where both parents work, and provide financial support. Households generally held the male figure as the financial provider, and the female figure as the care taker.

A 2013 study found that the most comprehensive stereotype that women face is simply not being associated with leadership, but rather as supporting roles “behind” male leaders. In their research Bombari, Lammers, Latu, and Mast (2013) found that exposing women to successful female role models had a positive effect on self-efficacy, and the overall appearance of women in leadership. This research suggests that women hold the responsibility to overcome stereotypes. Women are placed in an empowering position when they personally take action. Seeking out specific role models shows organizations that women are capable of making “aggressive” decisions, and standing behind their ideas and values (Bombari et al, 2013). Women can find role models in various forms, from books to television shows, to real life figures within their workplace. Hoyt et al (2016) also discussed in their research that role models were an effective means to combat stereotypes. Role models do not necessarily have to be continuously present in an actual physical form. Social media has been found to play a positive role in empowering women, and combatting stereotypes.

The use of such forums as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become key platforms in promoting women’s equality, and counter-stereotypes. Websites sell merchandise promoting feminism, displaying women in male dominant workforces such as engineering or construction (Leicht, 2017). In 2017 and the beginning of 2018 the popular hashtags of “time's up” and “me too” could be seen popping up on different social media platforms. Although not specifically directed towards stereotyping, these hashtags represent larger issues that come out of stereotyping: unequal pay and sexual harassment. Social media allows ideas and movements to reach a larger audience, including organizations demonstrating their support.

Social media can also cause conflict, and increase stereotypes. Davies, Spencer, and Steele (2005) discuss in their writing how television ad campaigns have been shown to contribute to the negative effects of female stereotypes. A woman may be shown at home cleaning, where a man will be shown in a business suit leading a meeting at work. From the different perspectives and approaches in research, social media can either be harmful or beneficial to combatting stereotypes, depending on the approach and content.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The findings on the effects of stereotypes on women in leadership roles suggests that women will continue to face difficulty. The literature demonstrates that because the majority of leadership within organizations is dominated by male figures, these stereotypes will continue to make professional advancement and workplace equality a difficult achievement. There have been numerous studies led on the specific topic of this paper, and some of the findings share similarities such as agreeing that women are stereotyped as emotional and incapable, and that role models are an effective way to combat the negativity that follows. There is little research that focuses on women in very specific professions, such as politicians or nurses. There is also little research found that focuses on specifically identified organizations, and, for example, gender-based lawsuits. A search via Google was completed, and that resulted in a number of published articles in local newspapers and magazines of gender-based lawsuits. For example, a woman being fired, because her male co-worker found her clothing “distracting.” Other articles found via Google showed relevant and useful information, but were also found to be anecdotal and biased, restricting the author from using these public articles as the main focus of literature review.

Research was primarily conducted through qualitative and quantitative approaches from countries, including the United States, offering multiple perspectives in different cultures and work environments. The majority of the literature appears to seek out similar research questions: 1) Why do these stereotypes negatively affect work performance? And 2) What can be done? From the literature, the final conclusion shows that stereotypes undermine perceived ability to efficiently perform tasks, and that they decrease self-efficacy. The literature demonstrates that although there are options that can combat stereotypes such as increasing the importance of role models, hiring more women into positions, and appropriately training employers, and employees on the benefits and importance of equality and diversity, the effects of negative stereotypes will continue to be a struggle for many.

Recommended Action Plan

As women continue working towards overcoming the “glass ceiling,” and an imbalance in leadership positions, stereotypes will continue to be an obstacle within workplace settings. The literature reviewed in this paper shows a correlation in workplace stereotypes, where women are too emotional, and not aggressive enough for leadership roles. The findings of this literature review draw similar conclusions about the effects of these stereotypes, both individually and professionally. Stereotypes have been shown to contribute to the imbalance of women in fortune 500 companies, political positions, and in smaller fortune 100 companies. In a more globalized world, not promoting women in leadership positions negatively affects the benefits of a diverse workforce, and the overall appearance of an organization, even leading to misrepresentation of the priorities.

Combatting stereotypes begins by acknowledging that there is an issue that causes negative outcomes (Bucher, 2015). This may be met with difficulty for those that do not experience the same stereotypes, more specifically it can be difficult for a female co-worker/leader to approach a male co-worker/leader about workplace stereotypes. The findings of the reviewed literature have shown that this possible issue demonstrates the importance of having women in leadership positions. It is important to note that the literature at no point demonstrated ideas that a solution is to decrease already existing leadership positions filled by men, but rather to begin filling open positions with qualified women.

Acknowledging the issue creates a reality around the issue where it can be “swept under the rug” or made out to be insignificant. Workplace training on both male and female stereotypes opens the floor to discussion and perspective. Some companies may lack to resources or funds to train all staff, especially in companies that employ hundreds or thousands, or in companies that operate solely through the use of telecommunications. If this is an issue, key leaders can be trained, implementing their knowledge into their personal leadership style (Daft, 2015).

It is also important for organizations and their leaders to understand the origin of gender stereotypes, and other sources that can lead to strengthening stereotypes. To restate, stereotypes are products of culture and history, and social media act in a negatively supporting role (Davies et al, 2005). Understanding the origin will help those that may not be directly affected to have an unbiased perspective, and promote a safe workplace.

After implementing such training, and/or offering education on the subject, the next step should be focused on hiring women into leadership positions, as well as lower employee positions. The reviewed literature did not state that preferential treatment should be specifically given to women, but the hiring process should have a balanced and fair approach, reviewing a candidates’ qualifications, rather than their gender.

As discussed in Bombari et al (2013), one of the most successful approaches to combatting stereotypes is empowering women by creating role models. Those that had role models within their workplace had an increased sense of self-efficacy, and experienced less backlash from perceived stereotypes, even when blatantly exposed to them. Role models do not have to be in the form of co-workers, or even workplace proximity associates. They can also be found in books, movies, or even historical figures. When women are empowered they also empower those around them (Bombari et al, 2013).

In summary, negative stereotypes can be difficult and frustrating for the individual, and for the entire organization. Although there is considerable information available on the topic, there is still room for continued research. This should not be something that is dreaded or feared, but approached as an opportunity for learning, growth, and improvement. Combatting negative stereotypes will be something than many will face in and out of work, but implementing specific approaches and training can offer relief.


Anzia, S. & Bernhard, R. (2017). Does gender stereotyping affect women at the ballot boxes? Department of Political Science of the University of California. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from

Bombari, D., Lammers, J., Latu, I., & Mast, M. (2013). Successful female leaders empower women’s behavior in leadership tasks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 444-448. Doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.003

Brescoll, V. (2016). Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), p. 415-428.

Bucher, D. (2015). Diversity consciousness (4th edition). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Daft, R. (2015). The Leadership Experience (6th edition). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Davies, P., Spencer, S., & Steele, C. (2005). Clearing the air: Identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), p. 276-287. Doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.2.276

Eagly, A., Koenig, A., Mitchell, A., & Ristikari, T. (2011). Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), p. 616-642. DOI: 10.1037/a0023557

Hoyt, C. & Murphy, S. (2016). Managing to clear the air: Stereotype threat, women, and leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 387-399.

Leicht, C. (2017). Counter-stereotypes and feminism promote leadership aspirations in highly identified women. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(2).

Warner, J. & Corley, D. (2017, May 21). The women’s leadership gap. Center for American Progress. Retrieved Wednesday, January 31, 2018, from

gender roles
Aly Ray
Aly Ray
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Aly Ray

Washintonian in the Texan desert. Fitness, food, dogs, Harry Potter, and life's hard, but necessary experiences breath inspiration into my writing.

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