When it comes to leaders, maybe it’s time for a re-branding

Which of these adjectives are most often applied to women, and which more frequently to men?
Rachel Werdin


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Practical.  Indecisive.  Logical. Abrasive.  Compassionate.  Confident. Analytical.  Passive.   Aggressive. Level-headed.  Temperamental.  Excitable.  Dependable. Competent.  Arrogant.  Frivolous.  Inept.    

 Which of these adjectives are most often applied to women, and which more frequently to men?  Not purely historically but here and now, in the cultural milieu we find ourselves in two decades into the twenty-first century?  Despite the progress we’ve made towards gender equality, in many ways our subconscious biases still echo the value judgements of centuries ago… perhaps more than we would be comfortable to admit.  

(Because despite knowing people of varying genders who display all of the above characteristics, we can still sort that list into a pretty good semblance of stereotypically ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes, no?)  

The list of words above results from studies conducted over the past decade into which adjectives are most commonly applied to men and which to women in work-based performance evaluations.   Researchers found that, by and large, the words most often used to describe men and women in this setting were completely different from one another; and wherever there was any crossover the same word was given a vastly different value judgement depending on the gender of the recipient; for example, ‘ambitious’ and ‘aggressive’ were generally positive qualities for men, yet negative for women.  

One of these studies was conducted in 2018 and looked at 4,000 participants and 81,000 performance evaluations in the US[2]military.  Admittedly the military is a male-dominated profession however, over recent decades there has been a concerted effort to remove gender segregation and discrimination.  It is now an institution that prides it self on its meritocratic ideals of fairness, justice and providing equal opportunity- and the researchers wanted to check how these aspirations played out in reality.  

The study revealed that while objective performance measures such as grades and fitness scores were relatively homogenous across both genders, subjective evaluations showed marked differences between how men and women were assessed.  Firstly, the descriptors were vastly different for male and female counterparts, with no crossover in the most commonly-used adjectives for both genders, either positive or negative.  Men were more likely to be positively described as ‘analytical’ and women as ‘compassionate’, while on the negative spectrum men were more likely to be ‘arrogant’ and women ‘inept’.  

All well and good, we may say, as both analytical and compassionate are good traits for a manager, arrogance and ineptitude both impediments to successful leadership.  But do we really value these attributes in the same way?  Would you promote the compassionate or the analytical candidate? Are we as forgiving of ineptitude as arrogance?  

Also the sheer amount of positive versus negative adjectives used in men’s and women’s evaluations was stark: where a woman’s performance was six times more likely to be described negatively than a man’s.

A 2014 report by Kieran Snyder further illustrates this point.  Her analysis of 248 performance reviews sourced from 28 companies in the tech industry found that critical feedback was contained within about 60 % of male performance reviews, but in closer to 90% of women’s evaluations.  

Additionally, negative personal feedback was included in only two of the men’s reviews but 71 of the 94 reviews of women.  For example, the word ‘abrasive’ was used 17times to describe 13 different women yet was never used to describe a man.  So not only was there more criticism for women, but it was more personal and less constructive.  


“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”


“There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details to help move an area forward.”

and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

Yet in both of the above studies this feedback was delivered by both male and female managers.  Hence we see that this is not purely about how men view women, but a more general issue of how society sees women and values traditionally ‘female’ attributes (when embodied by either women or men).  

In a time when our understanding of society and personality, sex and gender, and the cultural creation of identity have become so much richer and more flexible, are we still suffering from a historical hangover which automatically applauds that which is traditionally ‘masculine’ while simultaneously undervaluing the qualities viewed as typically ‘feminine’?  When we think of a leader, do we still think of someone who is, traditionally, ‘male’?

At least in certain settings, the answer seems to be yes.  Obviously, of course.  We see this all around us, everyday.  But maybe more interesting to ask is - is it time for a reimagining of the values and attributes we have historically prized above all others?  

Because this prejudice against traditionally ‘female’ characteristics not only affects women adversely, but men too.  While women may experience the double bind of seeming less competent if they are too stereotypically feminine (i.e., compassionate, nice, caring) but also less likeable if they adopt a more traditionally masculine style of leadership(assertive, ambitious, confident), men also get caught up in this paradigm.

Research shows that men risk being seen as less capable and less competent if they stray into territory traditionally identified as ‘feminine’ (such as showing humility, vulnerability, empathy, being ‘nicer’), potentially penalising them in terms of income, status and promotion or hiring eligibility.  Yet paradoxically, these are the very skills that make for better leaders at work.

Everything from Gallup polls to Harvard Business Review reports identify the importance of the ‘soft’ interpersonal skills in leadership competence.  Key factors in employee engagement relate to leaders who build relationships, create a culture of openness and accountability, motivate and engage every single employee, and regularly give feedback on progress or praise for something well done all areas in which female leaders generally outperform men.  Add this to the figures on increased productivity resulting from an engaged workforce and it becomes clear we would do well to reassess our implicit judgements of what makes for a good ‘leader’…..and wonder why it hasn’t happened already?  

Suppose we remove the gender-coded negative connotations implicit in ‘bossy’,‘stubborn’ and ‘abrasive’ so women can confidently embrace assertiveness and persistence without fear of reprisal; what could that do for female leadership in the world?  And if men need not worry about exhibiting the exact behaviour required to make them more effective leaders, what changes could that further enact? Culture and language are eternally evolving as we create and recreate our society around us amidst an ever-changing kaleidoscope of ideas and opinions.

When it comes to leaders, maybe it’s time for a re-branding.

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