Considering Leadership Stereotypes in Sustainable Business

This post was written by Julia Lyon ’18 (LinkedIn), a student in The Sustainable Innovation MBA, and a co-editor of the Review.

Picture this: You are employed at a company, in a role that you love, and the CEO is none other than George Costanza. Thinking about his character, do you believe George will be a good leader?

For those of us who are Seinfeld fans, we know that George will likely not be the most effective business leader. But what qualities, assumptions and observations bring us to this conclusion? This question was the opening to the recent Leadership Stereotypes workshop for The Sustainable Innovation MBA students, where the class discussed gender and leadership, implicit biases, and how to apply these insights in leadership and life.

During the workshop, the cohort explored how people perceive and evaluate leaders based on assumptions on how they communicate and behave, their different leadership styles, and even what they look like. Research has shown that people generally consider “masculine” characteristics to be more inherent in leadership. These include male stereotypes like being assertive, competitive, task-focused and decisive. These “agentic” qualities differ from the “communal” leadership qualities that are associated with female stereotypes — being sensitive, kind, empathic and helpful. For leaders who don’t typically fit into this prescribed way of looking and acting, they are often judged as less effective compared to leaders who fit those stereotypes.

Prior to the workshop, the class took individual Implicit Association Tests (IAT) on gender and career that measure personal implicit attitudes and beliefs. They also took a survey indicating whether they believed that certain behaviors or qualities were more frequently demonstrated by male leaders, female leaders, or neither. While the class was spot-on for some questions, some results were surprising. The class was correct in identifying that there is no evidence-based gender difference between task-oriented leader behaviors, which include setting performance goals, communicating expectations and delegating tasks. The class incorrectly indicated that there was no difference between male and female genders with contingent reward behavior. Evidence has proven that using rewards to motivate employees and incentivize high performance is actually used more frequently by females as a leadership tactic.

Understanding implicit biases is the first step in addressing them. As future business leaders, the The Sustainable Innovation MBA students are building upon this awareness to demonstrate and become role models in creating inclusive workplaces that harness the skills of everyone.