Cheerfulness may hold back female leaders

Story highlights

  • A new study shows that for both men and women, expressing pride gives the impression that one is willing to lead
  • But women were seen as significantly less willing to lead than men, when they displayed happiness
  • Expressing pride is a way to close the gender divide of how executives are perceived

One way for women to combat the stereotype that they are less fit as leaders than men is to be less cheerful and show more pride, a new study suggests.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Technische Universität München School of Management, found that for both men and women, expressing pride gave the impression that one is willing to lead, especially when compared to expressions of happiness. But the difference was more pronounced among women.

Isabell Welpe, a professor who was part of the study, said past research has shown it is important for people wanting to reach a leadership position to be seen as both able and willing to do so, and that emotional display played a part in these perceptions.

Researchers studied the perceptions by showing participants photographs of people with various facial expressions, as well as written scenarios describing expressions, and asking what they expected out of the individuals' leadership potential.

"The main finding was that, yes, pride works in increasing a perceived willingness to lead. But then we also found differences for men and women, especially in the happiness condition: When they showed happiness, women were perceived as being less willing to lead than men."

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Even though it confirmed that women are perceived less favorably than men when it comes to leadership, no matter what emotions they showed, the good news for women is that they could use the findings to their advantage to narrow the gap.

"Our advice would be to show pride in achievements that they have made," Welpe said, in favor of displaying a cheerful disposition.

Prisca Brosi, who led the study, said that communication and work performance tend to be evaluated differently based on gender. And women, while facing prejudices, are no less harsh in evaluating leaders, according to extensive research in the past.

"There are instances when women are more critical than men against men and women," Brosi said.

Nilofer Merchant, a director at U.S. corporations, said it makes a lot of sense that people who express pride are seen by others are more willing to lead.

Read more: Are we ready for Gen Y leaders?

"After all, if you can't vote for your own ideas, then how could anyone else?" she said, adding that having a "can do anything" attitude has brought her opportunities to head large projects.

But it is not always straightforward to put forth this attitude as a woman. She says showing pride runs contrary to social norms, where women are socialized to fit in rather than stand out.

"I once had a colleague try to sabotage a project because I was having many successes, and when I confronted her, she said it was because she thought I 'needed to be cut down to size,'" she said.

As a high-level executive, Merchant says she has also experienced the perils of being a leader who expresses cheerfulness. Not only are friendliness and competence often seen as contradictory, she says, but women are also expected to be nice, which puts them in a Catch-22 situation.

"We are judged as people one doesn't want to work with if we are competent and not also nice. It means women have to always worry about tone, demeanor and body language to make sure the idea is packaged just so," she said.

"Some days I manage this. Others, not so much. And frankly, I wish for a day when no woman has to do the double duty of both coming up with a brilliant idea to save a company or industry, and also win the prize for cheerfulness. There's only so much energy any of us have."

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