When people are asked to draw what a leader looks like, almost everyone draws the same thing - and it's a disturbing picture of how little progress we've made

working coworkers design drawingStrelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

  • When people are asked to draw an effective leader, they almost always draw a man.
  • Researchers say this pattern is a prime example of gendered stereotypes about leadership. We tend to associate leadership roles and traits more with men than with women.
  • There's some evidence that our definition of leadership is expanding to include more stereotypically "feminine" traits, but change is slow.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights a simple exercise that reveals a lot about our assumptions around leadership.

You can do it yourself right now: Grab a pen and paper and draw an effective leader.

If you're like most people who go through this exercise, you drew a man.

Researchers say this pattern is a prime example of societal stereotypes about women and leadership. Specifically, we tend to associate leadership roles and traits more with men than with women. Some social scientists call it the "think leader, think man" phenomenon.

For example, about a decade ago, global nonprofit Catalyst surveyed senior-level executives in the United States and Europe and found that both men and women said women were better at "caretaking" skills like supporting and encouraging others, while men were better at "taking charge" skills like influencing superiors and problem-solving.

As Business Insider's Rachel Gillett reported, women often find themselves in a catch-22: Either they can demonstrate stereotypically masculine leadership traits and get penalized for violating gendered expectations, or they can act in a stereotypically feminine way and never get seen as a leader.

The Times also mentions a 2017 paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal, suggesting that it's harder for women to get noticed as leaders.

Across multiple studies, the researchers found that men were more likely to be perceived as leaders when they submitted an idea to improve the team. The same behavior, however, didn't have the same benefits for women - even when they used the exact same language.

Interestingly, a 2011 review of studies, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, suggests that our definition of leadership is gradually expanding to encompass more stereotypically feminine qualities. Think sensitivity, warmth, and understanding, in addition to stereotypically masculine qualities such as dominance and strength.

Change, to be sure, is slow when it comes to gender stereotypes. But being aware of these beliefs and how pervasive they are is a big step in tackling them.

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