If you want to get ahead, get a 'masculine' personality


Researchers at Antwerp University have found that women and men in leadership roles have similar personality profiles, with the emphasis on more 'masculine' characteristics

If the suit fits

Women and men who lead organisations have similar personalities, according to research carried out at Antwerp University. This is not for the reassuring reason that men and women are fundamentally the same, but because women need to be like men to get to the top.

“The leadership profile in many organisations is still interpreted on the basis of more 'masculine' characteristics, which may constitute an extra barrier for many women," said Bart Wille, assistant professor of personnel and organisational development at the university.

His research was carried out in collaboration with human resources company Hudson, which collects personality data on people in the workplace. Looking first at the profiles of more than 500 leaders from across Europe, Wille and his colleagues found that the men and the women resembled each other more than they differed. Both groups demonstrated a strong tendency to assertiveness, strategic thinking and decisiveness.

But when they looked at the profiles of 50,000 people who were not in leadership roles, they found significant differences between the sexes. Women scored slightly higher on average for aspects of altruism and conscientiousness, and slightly lower for emotional stability and extroversion.

And while men have similar personality profiles wherever they are in an organisation's hierarchy, women in leadership are significantly different from those in other roles.

This suggests that women who want to rise through the ranks face a double barrier. "Countless studies have shown that women who excel in the characteristics traditionally associated with male leadership are likely to be considered by their employees as bossy, arrogant, ‘shrill’ and unfeminine, which jeopardises their chances of promotion,” Wille observed.

According to Amélie Vrijdags, a senior R&D consultant at Hudson, it is no longer acceptable to help women rise by teaching them the typically ‘masculine’ behaviour associated with good leadership. "We believe that real change comes by breaking down gender stereotypes at the organisational level,” she said.

Photo: Getty Images/Robert Daly