Tough at the top: Leadership and gender

Are virtues and character strengths universal? Recent research highlights subtle but consistent gender differences in the importance attributed to character traits in leadership. Plus, a gender bias in the assessment of these characteristics. With increasing recognition of the need for diversity in organizations – especially in terms of leadership – these results pose significant questions about achieving gender balance and tackling wider diversity issues.



Temps de lecture

4 min


Based on an interview with Professor Gouri MOHAN on her paper, “Does Leader Character have a Gender?” co-written with Professor Gerard Seijts and Ryan Miller of the Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, December 2022.

Despite progress in recent years, women are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate leadership roles. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report, , only one in four C-suite leaders in the USA, such as Chief Executive or Chief Financial Officer, is a woman. And with just 87 women promoted to entry-level management positions for every 100 men, gender equality is far from a reality.

Why is this? What are the barriers and perceptions that are restricting women’s progress? And are there implications for other issues of diversity? One factor could be character traits and virtues associated with leadership and how they are perceived.

IÉSEG School of Management Professor Gouri MOHAN and colleagues at the University of Western Ontario have probed how gender affects the perception of leadership characteristics and found marked gender differences.

Men and women perceive leadership qualities differently

The research brought to light consistent differences between men and women in the importance attributed to character in leadership. Women considered character to be more important to successful leadership in business than men did, and women had higher expectations that individuals should demonstrate character in a new leadership role.

The gender of the research respondents also influenced their perception of leader character. Male respondents viewed female leaders who exhibited agentic behaviors, such as assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, or courage, in professionally challenging situations less favorably than male leaders displaying the same behaviors.

Dr. MOHAN was surprised by the effects of gender differences that were revealed – especially as they were consistent across the multiple studies.

“We thought we would see differences in the evaluation of the different character dimensions,” she says, “but the higher importance attributed to character in general by women compared to men was unexpected, as was the harsher evaluation of female leaders enacting assertive leadership behavior.”

Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t

Dr. MOHAN sees several implications from these studies for organizations and work environments. Firstly, despite the increasing demand for more ethical leadership in organizations, in particular in terms of greater transparency, fairness, and equity, the research shows that the character of leaders was still not valued very highly by participants, especially male participants.

Dr. MOHAN asks: “Why is the role of character not emphasized more in leadership education or more generally in the discussion around leadership in popular media?”

Secondly, a leader’s gender appears to shape what they are likely to prioritize, how they may choose to respond to situations, and importantly, how their actions are  evaluated by others: gender may play a vital part in shaping critical leadership behavior and decisions.

Finally, the research shows that women leaders are more likely to face push-back, especially from their male colleagues, if they engage in more assertive, stereotypically male behaviors – which are ironically seen as signs of effective leadership! Dr. MOHAN’s research is further evidence that women in leadership positions are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” in the eyes of their (majority) male counterparts.

What needs to change?

Dr. MOHAN feels that a greater representation of women in leadership positions will help to erode many of the existing gender stereotypes in organizations. However, this is unlikely to go far enough. Leadership training, based on idealized concepts, is often steeped in inherently masculine traits and behaviors.

“It is high time these existing biases were thoroughly (re)evaluated, and steps taken to correct this and deliver at least the foundations of a level playing field for women,” says Dr. MOHAN.

Indeed, such a holistic approach would be key to promoting and achieving the more inclusive and pluralistic leadership behaviors relevant to today’s corporate world. Simply hiring more women in the organization will not achieve this.

Dr. MOHAN plans to extend this research to understand further issues, such as the influence of race and culture on perceptions of leader character . Future studies could investigate how leaders’ social background and their work contexts affect the evaluation of character-related behaviors.

Practical applications

This research indicates that organizations should find ways to elevate the importance of character alongside competence in the practice of leadership. In addition, corporate leadership training programs should be assessed to ensure gender biases are eliminated.


Between July 2020 and April 2021, four studies (two surveys and two experiments using vignettes) were undertaken using the Amazon Mechanical Turk application to understand if the gender of an individual affects the importance attributed to character in a leadership role and bias in perceived leader effectiveness.

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CSR, Sustainability & DiversityManagement & Society




People, Organizations & Negotiations

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