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.”