Is It Lonely at the Top? Maybe for Women, but Not for Men

successful group of men
Topic(s): gender, job satisfaction, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2022)
Article: Gender-Contingent Effects of Leadership on Loneliness
Authors: W.J. Ong
Reviewed by: Katherine Facteau

It is often assumed that obtaining a leadership role has strictly positive benefits, including increased pay, status, or power. However, for women, taking on a leadership role may come at a cost. New research (Ong, 2022) aimed to understand unique challenges that female leaders face in the workplace. The research found that women, but not men, were more likely to experience loneliness when assuming a leadership role. This research offers insight into why this is the case, and how we can better support female leaders.  


Results from an archival data set, laboratory experiment, and field study found that female leaders experience greater loneliness, while men do not. The author also aimed to identify why this is the case. The research studies revealed that because women face expectations in a leadership role that conflict with female gender norms (e.g., a leader is expected to be assertive, but a woman is expected to be cooperative), women felt less able to be their true, authentic selves. On the contrary, men did not experience this phenomenon because their gender norms largely align with leadership expectations (e.g., “think manager, think male”). The author described that since leadership roles are often assumed to be a male role, female leaders may struggle to feel like themselves, increasing their sense of loneliness.


As organizations are increasingly striving towards diverse workforces, this research offers important insight into how to support women who assume new leadership roles. First, it is necessary to establish support networks for female leaders. For example, the Women’s Inclusion Network through SIOP, whose goal is to help women feel included in the workplace, could serve as a valuable resource. Organizations should further strive to find ways to enhance social support for female leaders by fostering high-quality social relationships at work.  

Additionally, creating environments where women feel free to be their authentic selves, rather than feeling pressured to adhere to societal expectations, can help women have a more positive leadership experience. For example, workshops aimed at increasing self-compassion or offering “safe spaces” for women to discuss their concerns could prove beneficial. Ultimately, it is important for organizations to create workspaces where new female leaders experience less loneliness and thrive in their roles.   


Ong, W. J. (2022). Gender-contingent effects of leadership on loneliness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(7), 1180–1202.