Are Female Leaders Judged More Harshly than Male Leaders?

female ceo

Amongst researchers and practitioners, one of the most popular leadership styles today is transformational leadership. Transformational leaders inspire their subordinates through motivational communication and action. They are generally concerned with promoting personal growth and development in their followers by challenging them to learn new skills and abilities. But how is the perceived effectiveness of transformational leadership different for male and female leaders?


The authors of this study (Ayman, Korabik, & Morris, 2009) predicted that women who use a transformational leadership style will be evaluated as less effective than their male counterparts who adopt the same style. This may be due to the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in our society – that leadership and masculinity go hand-in-hand. According to role congruency theory (Eagly & Karau, 2002), when raters experience incongruence between the behavior they expect of a leader and what they expect of a woman, they under-value the female leader’s behavior and performance.

The authors examined 109 leader-subordinate dyads in Canada. The relationship between a leader’s transformational leadership and their subordinates’ evaluation of their performance was significantly less positive for female leaders with male subordinates than for female leaders with female subordinates. However, when male leaders were evaluated, male and female subordinates rated their performance as equally effective, regardless of their levels of transformational leadership.


The results of this study suggest that popular leadership styles like transformational leadership may not be equally effective for men and women. Male subordinates, as compared to female subordinates, were more negative in their evaluations when a female leader considered herself high on transformational leadership behaviors. This highlights the subtle biases female leaders face in diverse work settings. Female leaders should focus on understanding others’ perceptions of their behavior. Organizations can work to reduce these gender biases by promoting diversity training and the use of bias-free personnel feedback systems.

Ayman, R., Korabik, K., & Morris, S. B. (2009). Is Transformational Leadership Always Perceived as Effective? Male Subordinates’ Devaluation of Female Transformational Leaders. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(4), 852-879.