I have been teaching leadership to business school students for more than a decade and every year I ask my students to do the same exercise: to match three words and three names with the term “leader”.
Year after year, they talk about charisma, vision and power and they throw out the names of famous leaders such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Napoleon – we are in France, after all! I then ask them to do the same exercise with the words “masculine” and “feminine”.
I borrowed this exercise from Judith Rosener who published an article in 1995 on the masculinisation of leadership. Every year the replies I receive confirm what Rosener demonstrated almost 20 years ago: a leader is a man with so-called masculine characteristics, ie he is rational, assertive, linear and in complete control of his emotions.
I find this situation troublesome given that more than half my students are women. I am a teacher who cares about seeing all her students express leadership that is both genuine and effective. I am also a researcher conducting research into the characteristics and impact of company directors’ leadership.
In both these capacities, I think that business schools need to be more aware of the stereotypes they are passing on and should be more committed to changing them.
In terms of leadership, only the ability to lead and motivate others positively should matter. Recent research on gender and leadership shows that employees hardly differentiate any more between a female manager and a male manager.
This is what I teach in my leadership classes, but apparently this is not what my students believe. They believe leadership is the result of a process of attribution, distorted by a number of stereotypes and preconceived opinions about leaders. The stereotype of a leader therefore determines who will be regarded as a leader and who will not, as well as who will consider themselves to be a leader and who will abandon any hope of becoming one.
The persistence of the male and masculine stereotype of a leader is one reason why there is a lack of diversity at the top of companies and yet we rarely discuss this issue. Imagining a woman in the role of a leader, or imagining that female qualities such as taking care of others might be a lever for the most powerful leadership, are considered incongruous.
Society’s entrenched stereotype not only deprives us of female leaders but also deprives us of effective leaders. For whatever our very masculine views on the matter are, consideration for others, the ability to listen and personal integrity prove to be more effective than assertiveness and authoritarianism.
We are in the midst of a paradox in the form of the gap between real leadership (which we effectively pursue everyday) and fantasised leadership (which we imagine to be leadership). In reality we prefer androgynous leadership and do not take a leader’s gender into consideration, but in our heads things are very different and we continue to imagine a charismatic, assertive man.
When it is a question of recruiting and selecting a leader, fantasy often takes control. This is a paradox that may lead us to choose leaders who we do not want and who may turn out to be completely ineffective or even destructive.
If business schools really want to contribute to gender equality and enable their brightest female students to influence the future of businesses and society; and if the schools really want to contribute to better business administration and train leaders who are both honest and effective, then it is time to assume our responsibility with respect to the perpetuation of and damage caused by this unfair, counter-productive image of a leader. It is not enough merely to teach generous, positive theories of leadership, theories which in reality students do not believe in.
It is time to follow a different path to promote female leadership. Not by focusing on male/female differences and the fight against gender stereotypes, but by proposing an alliance between men and women in which together they rebuild the stereotype of a leader to create leadership which is open and productive and benefits both men and women and ultimately companies.
The Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street presents a world dominated by power-hungry, brutal and highly charismatic male leaders. It would be wrong to think that this 1980s stereotype has disappeared. Urgent action is needed and business schools have an important role to play.
Firstly, by updating and challenging the stereotype of a leader in management and leadership classes and also by offering students the opportunity to develop a new definition of a leader, one that is more open and more effective. In this way, business schools might also succeed in eliminating another stereotype: that of business schools that train only conventional managers in boring dark suits.
The writer is a professor of strategy at Edhec Business School, France