The idea that women in leadership roles are fundamentally different to their male colleagues is widespread. However, research by the University of Antwerp and HR advisor Hudson has indicated that women and men in leadership roles have far more similarities than differences.
Stereotypes about women’s leadership styles vary from extremely negative to very positive: some people are convinced that women lack drive or are too emotional to make good leaders. People who take a positive view praise women for their unique approach and strong interpersonal skills that make them better leaders than men.
However, there are few studies, if any at all, that have investigated these stereotypes. Do men and women in leadership roles really have different personalities’ Research conducted by academics at various universities in partnership with Hudson’s R&D department has filled this gap.
And the conclusion is clear: men and women in leadership roles resemble each other more than they differ.
Non-leaders versus C-level executives
When we look at the large cohort of non-leaders that were studied, women score slightly higher on average for aspects of altruism and conscientiousness and slightly lower for emotional stability and extraversion. However, these differences between men and women largely seem to disappear if you focus on the C-level executive group (executives and senior managers). The results show that men and women in leadership roles are no longer fundamentally different to each other. Both have the profile of archetypical leaders, with a pronounced emphasis on characteristics such as assertiveness, strategic thinking and decisiveness.
Breaking down gender stereotypes
An interesting finding here is that the differences in personality between C-level executives and non-leaders are significantly greater in women than in men.
Bart Wille , assistant professor of Personnel and Organizational Development at the University of Antwerp, explains: “What we can deduce from this is that the ‘leadership profile’ in many organisations is still interpreted on the basis of more ‘masculine characteristics’, which may constitute an extra barrier for many women: in fact countless studies have shown that women who excel in the characteristics traditionally associated with male leadership are likely to be considered by their employees as bossy, arrogant, ‘shrill’ and unfeminine, which jeopardises their chances of promotion.”
What does all this mean for programmes focusing on helping women get ahead in organisations?
“To get more women into leadership roles, the focus is usually on changing the women themselves, by teaching them to display more typically ‘masculine’ forms of behaviour that are associated with good leadership. However, we believe that real change comes by breaking down gender stereotypes at the organisational level”, says Amélie Vrijdags, a senior R&D consultant at Hudson.
About the research
Prof Bart Wille of the University of Antwerp, several fellow academics from Belgium and abroad and the R&D Department at Hudson researched the personality profiles of more than 500 leaders at the very top of their organisations. The profiles of these ‘C-level’ executives were compared with the profiles of more than 50,000 employees in non-leadership roles. Personality was mapped using the Business Attitudes Questionnaire (BAQ) developed by Hudson, which measures 20 specific characteristics grouped under the famous ‘Big Five’ personality model (Emotional stability, Extraversion, Openness, Altruism and Conscientiousness). In the Hudson BAQ, another five facets of personality relevant in a professional context were added: ambition, a critical mind, focus on results, strategy, and autonomy.
About Professor Bart Wille
Bart Wille is an Assistant Professor of Personnel and Organizational Development at the Department of Training and Education Sciences (University of Antwerp), and a member of the Edubron research group. His research is situated in the broad domain of human behaviour in work and organisational contexts, with particular focus on the development of professionals during and across various career stages. Examples of this are: the transition from school to work, dealing with professional transitions, and climbing the career ladder.
About Amélie Vrijdags
Amélie Vrijdags is a Senior R&D Consultant at Hudson, a human resources advice agency with more than 35 years of experience. With a PhD in psychology, she bears responsibility within Hudson R&D for everything related to scientific research and statistical analyses. Hudson started out in Belgium in 1982 as De Wittel & Morel, acting as a partner for organisations that wanted to recruit and develop top professionals. In 2008, De Witte & Morel officially became Hudson. Hudson has been entirely back in Belgian hands since April 2018.