• Leadership

Bias Against Women Leaders

New research on sex roles shows people are more prejudiced against women leaders than statistics might indicate


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Despite having the same level of education, women are less likely to attain leadership positions than men. While some progress has been made in recent years to counter gender imbalance in the boardroom and in senior leadership, the problem persists around the world.

Many reasons have been cited for this, but one we find hard to accept is that there is any underlying bias against women leaders. Or, if there is, surely it must only be amongst older people – particularly men.

New research, from Adrian Hoffmann and Jochen Musch of the Heinrich-Heine-University in Germany, suggest we are fooling ourselves. Underlying bias exists even amongst the young and amongst women. According to these researchers, results from conventional self-reporting surveys on gender prejudices are flawed, because participants tend to provide socially desirable rather than truthful responses for fear of social disapproval. The results from truly confidential surveys can show significantly more bias.

Asked by Hoffman and Musch if they considered women to be less qualified for leadership positions than men, when granted full confidentiality, 28% of women and 45% of men agreed. A surprising result particularly as the survey of 1529 participants was done with, young, well-educated, members of a German university community. As a comparison, the results using a conventional self-reporting technique showed that only 10% of women and 36% of men agreed with the proposition.

Hoffmann and Musch’s indirect questioning technique showed that people are not always honest when directly asked their opinion on socially sensitive questions because they prefer to give answers that they think will be accepted by others.

Whereas women showed less prejudice against women leaders than men in both types of survey, their responses were actually found to be more biased by social desirability. A disappointing number of men showed prejudice, but this increased less dramatically when an indirect question was used. Taken together, the results highlight the importance of controlling for socially desirable responding when using self-reports to investigate the prevalence of gender prejudice.

This pattern suggests that women are much more reluctant than men to express their prejudice against women leaders. Perhaps because women feel obligated to show solidarity with members of their in-group,” Adrian Hoffmann.

A report published this month by Egon Zehnder shows that the recent growth in female representation on boards in Western Europe is now levelling off, and growth elsewhere remains sluggish – 20.4% of board seats of the largest companies globally are now held by women, up from 18.5% in 2016. (This is the picture in large publicly quoted companies in smaller private firms the percentages are far less.)

With the rate of progress towards parity decelerating, and with nearly three quarters of all new appointments still going to men, fully balanced boards will never be achieved without a significant increase in the hiring of female directors,” Egon Zehnder report.

Many factors have been cited as reasons for the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. It may be because women find domestic and child rearing responsibilities incompatible with seeking career advancement, or maybe it is because they are turned-off by the masculine organizational culture they find, or maybe it is because pushy men are better at gaining promotion. All of the above may play a part, but Hoffmann and Musch’s research highlights the uncomfortable fact that gender stereotypes and prejudice against women leaders is another valid explanation.

Given that even many women have reservations against women leaders, the societal and political promotion of gender equity has obviously not been successful at changing the attitudes of every potential future leader. It therefore does not seem unreasonable to expect the further persistence of workplace bias,” Jochen Musch.

While prejudice of this sort is a cultural manifestation that needs to be faced by society as a whole, there are clear implications for business leaders. HR leaders in particular need to bear these findings in mind when recruiting, promoting and supporting women leaders and would-be leaders. This is not because reaching a more equal gender balance is ‘fair’– rather it is for the sound practical reason that a growing body of reliable research is beginning to demonstrate that having a more balanced male/female leadership boosts the bottom line.


Access the research paper here: Prejudice against women leaders: Insights from an indirect questioning approach; Hoffmann, A. & Musch, J. (2018). Published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research by Springer Nature.

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