How to use Leadership Styles to Overcome Gender Stereotypes

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Research suggests that women are perceived to possess support skills while lacking strategic skills such as vision.

These stereotypes are the epitome of the “Think Crisis, Think Female” Association and the Glass Cliff Phenomenon. These concepts revolve around the idea that females are usually selected as an optional candidate when companies are failing and are likely hired to lead organizations in precarious situations.

To be able to lead under these conditions, skills such as the ability to balance risks, being able to pragmatically cope with failure and the desire to help the underdog are necessary.

Women may also face the dilemma of having to walk a fine line between being viewed as “hard” or being “too soft”. What may be considered assertive for a man is perceived as aggressive for a woman. For example, studies show that women tend to have strong interpersonal skills; an attribute that is often viewed as a support or “care-taking” skill and not the “take charge” (i.e., delegate/influence) skills that traditional leadership requires.

How can women overcome these perceptions? The answer may lie in using leadership styles as a strategy to challenge bias.

What are Leadership Styles?

Leadership styles are those communicative behaviors demonstrated by a leader during certain management situations. There is no “one-size-fit-all” leadership style that makes a leader effective. In many instances, different circumstances will require the leader to use a combination of styles.

Depending on the latest trend, there are numerous styles of leadership. However, most styles fit into one or more of these basic descriptions:

Autocratic: Total control and demands immediate compliance
Democratic: Looks for group input and participation in decision-making
Laissez Faire: Minimal participation; leaves decision making to the group
Paternal/Maternal: Guides, protects and takes care of the group

Although there is no perfect leadership style, it is beneficial to understand how your leadership style affects others. Knowing your primary leadership style (the style that is natural for you) will help you understand how you communicate with others and how you are perceived.

As CEO, it will be your style that set the tone of the organization, affecting employee performance and ultimately your company’s bottom line. As a tool, your leadership style can help you motivate others, resolve conflicts and overcome workplace challenges.

Embrace Your Leadership Style

As a part of our coaching and training programs, we use DiSC assessments to help our clients understand their natural leadership style and how to adapt their style to effectively communicate with others.

DiSC is the acronym for the four emotional behavior traits a person demonstrates in relation to how she perceives her environment.
Here is a brief description of each trait to help you decide which best describe you. Don’t be alarmed if you see yourself in more than DiSC style:

Dominance (D) – This person focuses on solving problems and completing tasks. She understands the importance of achieving results. This person thrives when she solves challenges and she likes to be in authority. She is decisive and tends to be direct (uses strong, clear language) and guarded (formal).

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Influence (I) -This person focuses on people. She understands the power in establishing positive social relationships to achieve results. This person flourishes in social relationships where she is able to encourage and motivate others. She is spontaneous and tends to be direct and open (personable) in her communication style.

Steadiness (S) – This person focuses on maintaining a stable, safe environment. She understands the importance of consistency. This person excels in established systems and working in teams in a relaxed atmosphere. She tends to use indirect language (Implied) and open in her communication style.

Conscientious (C) – This person focuses on procedures (data). She understands the need for thorough and accurate data. Independent and analytical, this person thrives with problem-solving and finding flaws in systems, processes and data. She tends to be indirect and guarded.

DiSC assessments can help leaders become more effective by understanding the strengths of their style and learning how to connect with their stakeholders based on their communication needs. Let’s look at how your leadership style may help overcome gender stereotypes.

Overcoming Stereotypes: Leadership Style as a Strategy

There is no right nor wrong leadership style and different styles are needed for certain situations. The best way to overcome gender stereotypes on an individual level is to be aware of your leadership style and communicate with others in a way that meets their communication needs. This is known as the Platinum Rule, a concept by Dr. Tony Alessandra based on treating others the way they want to be treated.

For example, a leader with the (S) style is relaxed and approachable. This person will likely connect with employees through brief informal conversations before discussing business. A great listener, this person may ask questions and get others involved in discussions.

Good at team building, someone with the S style has strong interpersonal skills and may consider suggestions from the team before making decisions.

This style is also great at follow through once this person makes a decision. The weakness of this style is that this person may be very sensitive, slow to make a decision, doesn’t like sudden change and tends to lack a global perspective.

Let’s say that the Steadiness (S)style leader has a supervisor who has a Dominance (D) style. This style focuses on the problem and tasks and tends to be direct, decisive and guarded.

When communicating with this leader, the (S) style will need to be concise, stick to the agenda and get to the point, the results. The (S) style must remember not take anything personally as she understands that the (D)style supervisor just wants to solve the problem.

The (S) style leader is not changing who she is; She is just translating. She is communicating with her (D) style supervisor in the way her supervisor processes information.


Studies show that gender discrimination is a systemic issue at the governmental, societal and organizational levels. Various studies reveal that gender discrimination must be disposed at each of these levels. The government must not only create laws that promote equality but also enforce existing and new laws. Elected officials must be committed to ensure that all constituents are afforded the same rights regardless of demographics.

At the societal level, equality must begin in the home and within their community. Parents must teach boys and girls the skills to thrive in the world as problem solvers and independent thinkers.

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Kids must learn how to take care of themselves and be accountable for their actions. Kids need to develop their communication skills, build character, be able to handle criticism and speak up for themselves while learn how to be comfortable in their own skin.

Organizations must build a diverse culture that reflect the global marketplace. Companies staff should reflect their stakeholders including their customers. To achieve diversity, businesses must create an unbiased system that recognizes and promotes individual’s based on the needs of the organization and the merits of employee’s qualifications and taking a no tolerance attitude on discrimination.

Finally, the wheels of equality are slowly turning. Scholars have noted that if the pace of women entering senior leadership continues, it would take over another century for equal representation of women in the C-Suite (citation). The world cannot afford to wait that long and so entities must become more assertive in their role in overcoming discrimination.

As the fight continues on to eradicate the system that perpetuates inequality, individuals must overcome the gender stereotypes that form discrimination. When leaders learn how to use leadership styles to address various management situations and assess which style meets the communication needs of their employees, bias may be replaced with fair and equitable consideration.

For more information about discovering your leadership style through DiSC Assessments, please click here.


Alessandra, T., & O’Connor, M. J. (2008). The platinum rule: Discover the four basic business personalities and how they can lead you to success. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Belasen, A., & Frank, N. (2012). Women’s leadership: Using the competing values framework to evaluate the interactive effects of gender and personality traits on leadership roles. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(2), 192-214.

Bruckmüller, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49(3), 433-451.

Catalyst, & Wellbourne, T. (2005). Women take care, men take charge:  Stereotyping of U.S. business leaders exposed. New York, NY.

Hoobler, J. M., Lemmon, G., & Wayne, S. J. (2011). Women’s underrepresentation in upper management: New insights on a persistent problem. Organizational Dynamics, 40(3), 151-156.

Jones, S. J., & Palmer, E. M. (2011). Glass ceilings and catlights: Career barriers for professional women in academia. Advancing women in leadership, 31, 189.

Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiorno, R. (2011). Think crisis–think female: The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager–think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 470.

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