Male and female bosses share the same “classically masculine” personality traits

GettyImages-505412656.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

You may have seen the recent viral TV interview in which the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson claimed that an important part of the reason there are fewer women than men in leadership positions is to do with personality differences between the sexes. Specifically, he said that women on average score lower than men on traits, such as assertiveness, that are known to be associated with reaching senior roles, and higher on others that work against promotion, especially agreeableness and emotional sensitivity.

While these observations are largely backed by evidence, what’s far less clear – because the question simply hasn’t been studied much before – is whether women who reach senior management tend to share the traits of men in these positions, or if instead female bosses have a contrasting personality profile, indicative of an alternative, “feminine” route to the top.

These are pertinent questions for any one who would like more gender diversity in leadership roles because the findings could point to clues for how to ease the promotion path for women. For a new paper in Journal of Vocational Behaviour, a team led by Bart Wille at the University of Antwerp has investigated.

The researchers accessed comprehensive personality tests taken by nearly 600 top-level executives (including 143 female bosses) and over 52,000 non-executives (including 17,643 women) from diverse industries in Belgium and other European countries.

Men and women in non-leadership roles differed in their personality traits in ways consistent with the existing literature – for instance, women scored higher than men on characteristics associated with being more agreeable, such as being cooperative and people-oriented, while scoring lower on emotional stability and aspects of extraversion. In contrast, the personalities of male and female bosses were far more similar, with many sex-linked differences absent altogether or greatly attenuated (although the women still scored higher on aspects of agreeableness).

“…[M]en and women in executive positions demonstrate a similar pattern of classically masculine personality traits,” the researchers said.

This picture was reinforced by the within-sex personality comparisons between bosses and non-bosses. Whereas the personality of female managers contrasted sharply with the traits of non-managerial women, male bosses were not so different in their traits from non-managerial men. “Women tend to be lower on traits that lead individuals to pursue and be selected for leadership roles,” the researchers said.

All this would appear to support the Peterson view: because there are more men with the traits associated with striving for and obtaining leadership than there are women, it could be argued this helps explain the paucity of women in management roles. In turn, helping women develop more stereotypically masculine traits of the kind displayed by the male and female managers in this study, could be one way to enable more women to become bosses. Again, this matches the Peterson perspective – in his Channel 4 interview, he talked about how he has coached women to be more assertive to help them gain promotion.

However, one problem with this solution is that existing evidence suggests that women often face a backlash when they display stereotypically masculine traits. Wille and his team mention this issue and they say that “organisations must strive to counter these biases”. Another criticism is that this approach is arguably all about changing women to excel in existing male-dominated hierarchies, rather than changing workplace cultures to make them fairer.

Perhaps, if there were a cultural change, then people with different personality profiles, including more stereotypically feminine traits, might more often reach leadership roles, which would then favour more women. Peterson acknowledged the potential benefits of such a shift in his Channel 4 interview: “It could be the case that if companies modified their behaviour and became more feminine then they would be more successful”, he said, although he added that “there is no evidence for it”.

However you choose to interpret the new findings, they help answer a question that many have long speculated about. They suggest that even after several decades with an increasing female presence in the workplace, it remains the case that the same stereotypically masculine traits predict the attainment of senior roles among men and women.

Many issues remain unanswered and the study had various limitations. For instance, we don’t know if the women with a profile of higher extraversion and lower emotional instability were more likely to become bosses because they harboured more leadership ambitions, or because they had what it takes to overcome the barriers to the top. Also, the study relied on participants rating their own personalities, and it was conducted within a particular culture so the findings may not generalise.

“This study found that male and female C-level executives represent similar populations with a common profile of characteristic agentic, strategic personality traits,” the researchers concluded. “Ongoing research and practice should acknowledge that gender similarity, not difference, characterises leader personality and potential.”

Personality characteristics of male and female executives: Distinct pathways to success?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

12 thoughts on “Male and female bosses share the same “classically masculine” personality traits”

  1. ” Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” (Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady). The ‘elephant in the room’ is that in the UK of 2018, if you are a more ‘masculine’ woman (I think masculinity/femininity occurs on a continuum) with personality traits that fit the traditional ‘leadership stereotype’ in a given field of endeavour, you are more likely to succeed in filling a leadership role (adaptive) and the more feminine (less adaptive) (at least at work), the less likely.

    Men and women’s’ brains are different, enhanced by hormonal differences and reinforced by social stereotypes and pressures to act in a stereotypical way according to the level of ‘adaptiveness’. Tis is what we have to work with.

    I think if you want more women in leadership roles, given that there are biological differences, then we must change the workplace environment and fundamental cultural attitude towards what traits we value in a given context, how those traits compliment the workplace and how we go about facilitating change.

    I posit the unpopular idea that change, just for the sake of meeting ‘equality’ targets, is not necessarily a good thing.

    It should not be up to women to make the adaptation without the environment facilitating that change.

    One thing that springs to mind, is that men probably experience similar prejudices when trying to succeed in traditional stereotypical roles like health care, primary school education and child care. Nobody seems to standing up for getting more men into those roles!

    1. Who created gender roles and dictated and still dictates them? When you hear or read the word “dictate”, what gender do you most associate that with in a “worldly” sense? When thinking of past political “dictators”, what gender filled those roles? You say it may not be a good idea working from the “equality” angle, yet you seem to grab it in your last few sentences like it’s a good idea. It is not the workplace only that needs to make an almost impossible change or “shift”. It’s all genders replicating themselves and all their archaic beliefs and biases and keeping the patriarchal structures, including gender and gender roles, in place. Personally, I think the “ego” is the real elephant in the room. Why are any decisions dictated to the masses? It’s all about what pleases the dictators ego and what will bring that ego to the highest point of power and wealth. All else is secondary. And biologically, a good majority of male egos are born ready, willing and sufficiently able to assume “dictator” roles and are far more willing to do ANYTHING to procure what their ego wants and desires. Males are more prone to psychopathy and therefore can make decisions without “moral” complications. Men have long enjoyed being the majority in the education system, including primary school. It hasn’t been a favorite choice for any gender mostly because it doesn’t pay well. The exceptions are those who do it because they love to teach young minds and well, there is also the pedophile class that gravitates here, also majority male. And healthcare, how can you ignore history?? Males have always dominated that. They wanted to control birth as to continue their egos control over women. So they called women midwives and nature homeopaths witches and killed many. Males enjoyed legally raping their female patients in Victorian times by saying they were hysterical because they weren’t “allowed” to feel pleasure. They would then masturbate them in their offices. I guess the fun wore off so they created vibrators because their fingers were always cramping. I can’t make this sh*t up. History is full of embarrassments and Trumps and Harvey Weinstein’s and many, many others continue those embarrassments. Today, male dictators in government, insurance corporations, hospital administrations and doctors, majority male, are in complete and utter control of the female uterus. Different day, same ol’ sh*t. I mean, males “allowed” us females to vote eventually. Maybe they’ll give us back our uterus and decisions pertaining to it when they ain’t having so much fun controlling it anymore and again “allow” us? Personally, as a female, I had a lot of fun doing things I wasn’t “allowed” to do. I did ok, it pleased my ego very much to make fools of many. But wait, I didn’t make these fools … in most cases a male and a female did. We’re all guilty because we recycle and have little to no control over our biology or our fragile little EGOS and just recycle everything. Here’s to a new age of geneticists and technology that will enable the human race to manufacture an actual human evolution and “grow up”, out and away from allowing the human EGO, ANYONE’S EGO, to rule through their own personal filters of “Self”.

  2. Men and Women are expressing fewer strictly stereotypic sex-role attributes. The attribute gap is closing. Stereotypic masculine-style leadership is increasingly less effective. Cooperation and collaboration are most effective for leadership roles, particularly in the types of industries that are now the mainstay of twenty-first century economy and industry.

    The problem lies not in whether women ought to adapt. The problem is not how we describe masculinity or femininity, either, or whether or to what degree a biologically male or female human conforms to stereotypic gender roles. The problem is that our post-agrarian, post-industrial, technologically advanced, increasingly global societies no longer require that we conform to social roles based on gender.

    I absolutely agree with appliedpyschologysolutions’ comment that a fundamental cultural attitudinal shift is in order, though for different reasons. My research addresses exactly this:

    1. “Men and Women are expressing fewer strictly stereotypic sex-role attributes. The attribute gap is closing. Stereotypic masculine-style leadership is increasingly less effective. Cooperation and collaboration are most effective for leadership roles, particularly in the types of industries that are now the mainstay of twenty-first century economy and industry” Do you have any evidence for this? Which mainstay 21st century economies and industries are you referring to?

      The question here is whether adapting business models to highlight feminine traits will achieve success. There is no evidence to suggest that it will. Please feel free to try it out though. Though I disagree that there should be a fundamental cultural and attitude shift without any evidence to prove it’ll work.

    2. Nicole, you are wrong. Cooperation and collaboration are deeply masculine traits, because they require trust, self-less behaviour, confidence in skills, rational empathic behavior and open conflict management.

      Quite on the contrary, women are masters in the opposite: backstabbing, insecurity, narcissism, covert and hiding conflicts and unstable emotive behaviour.

      Women think that cooperation and collaboration means that everybody is holding hands and singing “kumbah yah”. That is completely false. Cooperation and collaboration can only happen when the environment establishes a culture of trust that allows conflicts to emerge and to be addresseds in an open and goal oriented non-judging environment.

      1. The state of the world proves you indelibly wrong. The traits and genders you stated above and their classifications were invented by man. These traits are shared by both genders, positive and negative. Each individual makes a choice regarding what traits they favor and wish to set free. Individuals with antisocial personality disorders and levels of high psychopathy, like sociopaths and psychopaths, do not seem to have the ability for real positive traits although they can “act” them out. Actions and inactions, depending on the circumstance(s) reveals their true characters eventually. It is a known fact that males are far more biologically prone to Narcissistic Personality Disorder and most other antisocial personality disorders. Male biologists determined that, take it up with them. A female has not yet gotten to prove herself as competitive for the highest psychopathy. Proof? No female U.S. president. And Trump, he’s all Narcissist, antisocial and misogynist. A person’s character traits are not wholly determined by their sexual organs and proclaiming an ownership by males of those particular traits being positive, you exhibit signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and misogyny yourself. You display clear subjective angst in your choices of traits you assigned to the female gender. One can only postulate why.

  3. If a company wants to run an experiment to see if it can accumulate success by shifting from masculine to feminine management style then please let them do so. Nobody should be forced into this strategy. And if it’s successful then there will be another blueprint for companies to follow. Nobody is stopping anyone from doing this, remove the tyrannical father from the top and replace him with compassionate mother, can you define the terms and business practices of such company? What will be done differently?

    Author also writes : “Many issues remain unanswered and the study had various limitations. For instance, we don’t know if the women with a profile of higher extraversion and lower emotional instability were more likely to become bosses because they harboured more leadership ambitions, or because they had what it takes to overcome the barriers to the top.” Why not both? They need leadership ambitions to overcome the ‘barriers to the top’. And what about the barriers? Shouldn’t there be barriers at the top to prevent ANYONE from getting to be in charge? Author seems to sneakily suggest that women face barriers at the top that men do not which would suggest that despite having leadership qualities women would still face hurdles, is there any evidence for this?

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