Some studies indicate that women are often penalized for being assertive in the workplace. However, a recent study finds that, in fact, women actually get more credit for taking on team leadership roles than men do.
The study’s co-authors include Klodiana Lanaj, an assistant professor of management at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville, and John Hollenbeck, a professor of management at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business in East Lansing. The pair asked 181 MBA students to complete projects as members of 36 self-managed teams. As a whole, 72 percent of the participants were male, but each team included at least one woman.
Lanaj and Hollenbeck then asked participants to complete three surveys, one before the start of the academic year, one six weeks later, and one four months after that. In the first survey, students answered questions about general personality traits. In the second survey, they rated their teammates’ leadership effectiveness in activities such as completing assignments, finding resources outside the team, settling conflicts, and building relationships. Finally, in the third, participants rated their teammates’ leadership in terms of emergence (assuming leadership) and effectiveness (organizing and coordinating efforts, getting tasks done, and solving problems).
Participants rated men more highly in leadership emergence, but they rated men and women equally in leadership effectiveness. This result shows that participants more naturally viewed men as leaders, exhibiting a “direct bias against women when it came to leadership emergence,” write Lanaj and Hollenbeck. However, when women exhibited high leadership emergence—by aggressively organizing their teams’ efforts, tackling problems, or seeking out necessary resources—they received more credit than men did for similar actions.
Lanaj and Hollenbeck speculate that the reason for this phenomenon could be that “take-charge” women are defying expectations of leadership. By disrupting their teammates’ male-leaning biases, their effective leadership makes a bigger impression and attracts more positive attention.
However, Lanaj and Hollenbeck found that such “expectancy violation” did not have the same effect for men whose activities fell outside the male norm for leadership, such as exhibiting social skills. “Helpful though they may be, social skills apparently don’t get individuals of either gender thought of as leaders” says Lanaj.
Lanaj references Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which advises women to be more assertive in their careers. “Women not only gain by leaning in, but gain disproportionately compared to male colleagues,” she says. “In effect, they enjoy a bonus for leaning in.”
Lanaj admits that women still can be penalized for assertiveness, particularly when it seems to be in their self-interest. But this study shows that when women are assertive in the service of a team, they can make a strong positive impression on their teammates. That knowledge might not erase bias in the workplace, Lanaj says, but it could help women take steps toward assuming leadership roles in their organizations.
“Leadership Over-Emergence in Self-Managing Teams: The Role of Gender and Countervailing Biases” appears in the October 2015 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.