Women are Both Penalized and Rewarded for Showing Agency at Work

women in leadership
Topic(s): fairness, gender, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2022)
Article: Reconciling Female Agentic Advantage and Disadvantage with the CADDIS Measure of Agency
Authors: A. Ma, A.S. Rosette, C.Z. Koval
Reviewed by: Shayla Bianchi

Prior research has shown conflicting results on whether women are rewarded or penalized in the workplace for displaying “agentic” qualities, such as assertiveness, independence, and ambition. For example, some studies show that women who demonstrate agency are seen as less promotable, while others reveal that agentic women are perceived as better leaders than men. One potential explanation for these discrepancies is that specific agentic qualities influence perceptions of women differently. In other words, people believe that female leaders should possess some traits and should not possess others. 


The researchers (Ma et al., 2022) first identified several distinct types of agentic qualities. Three experiments were then conducted in which participants were asked if they thought women who possessed each trait would be promoted at a higher or lower rate compared to a man with the same trait. The results showed that three agentic traits (competence, independence, and diligence) resulted in women appearing more promotable. However, the trait of dominance was related to women appearing less promotable.


Based on these results, the authors propose that organizations implement training programs for women to increase their independence, competence, and diligence. However, the authors warn against placing all responsibility for reducing the effects of gender inequality onto women. For this reason, they suggest that managers work to reframe behaviors. For example, behaviors that are typically viewed as displays of dominance, such as providing direct and honest feedback, could be reframed as competence instead. The researchers also recommend that managers create a work environment where employees do not feel the need to compete with coworkers to prove their “masculinity,” as these environments often promote gendered expectations.


Ma, A., Rosette, A. S., & Koval, C. Z. (2022). Reconciling female agentic advantage and disadvantage with the CADDIS measure of agency. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.