Previous studies have shown that men are perceived as competitive leaders, which is discouraging as the world continues to strive for more diverse leadership.
However, according to a new study published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries, feminine-looking women have a better chance of being viewed as strong leaders than previously thought.
The study cites Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – three high-profile women executives – as having three particular things in common:
“They are all top-level leaders in highly competitive companies, they are all women, and none of them look particular masculine.”
‘What people read in the faces of Mayer and Sandberg is that these non-masculine looking women are perceived as competitive and therefore well-suited to lead their business.’ the authors wrote.
In an interview with MailOnline, co-author Professor Jochen Menges, lecturer in organisational behaviour at University of Cambridge Judge Business School said: “In practice that means that feminine looking women have a better chance of being recognised as leaders than previously thought and that such women are seen as having the right attributes for leaders.”
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He explained: ‘The reason that more feminine faces are seen as good leaders is that these faces are associated with competitiveness.
‘That is against the gender stereotype that casts women as warm, communal, nurturing, cooperative and caring. So it is not only maternal connotations that are activated by very feminine faces, but also the competitiveness that previously was seen as being triggered by masculine faces,” he added.
According to the authors, the practical implications work both ways for women.
Macho men were more likely to be seen as leaders than ‘pretty boys’.
Women fare well when they either look particularly masculine or when they do not look masculine at all.
This means recruitment may be biased towards women in the middle ground between masculine and feminine facial features.
“Our findings suggest that there has been a misalignment between past research and the reality,” says Menges. “The study finds that it’s much more nuanced – that when women look very feminine people associate competitiveness with them as well.”
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