Your Dance to the Top

Women who want to be executive-level leaders need to manage their ‘agentic behaviour’ with exceptional agility.

Recent research indicates women that who want to be executive-level leaders need to manage their ‘agentic behaviour’ with exceptional agility. Agentic behaviours contain two elements: competence and dominance. Stereotypically ‘masculine’, they include traits like assertiveness and competitiveness. Studies repeatedly show that heightened levels of these qualities, and reduced levels of the more ‘feminine’ communal qualities (compassion, friendliness), are closely associated with positive perceptions of leadership potential, ability, and impact. Notably, this permeates both others’ perceptions of us and our own estimations of ourselves.

Research published this month shows that male and female executives demonstrate commensurate levels of agentic behaviours. However, there is a marked difference between men and women when it comes to lower levels in the organisational hierarchy. What does this mean? The authors of this research suggest that it means there may be added pressure on women to be agentic when they want to be considered leadership material. (We sidestep an important debate here about how agentic women ‘naturally’ are.)

What we find particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of this research with an important paper titled “Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Toward Agentic Women”. Here, the authors find that women who demonstrate untempered agentic traits are ‘punished’. Punishment takes the form of social repercussions, and leads to hiring discrimination and disqualification for leadership roles, among other negative practices. What should women use to temper their agentic traits then? Niceness.

Clearly these findings have significant implications for the level of awareness that women need to bring to their roles and the workplace. Given such circumstances, crucial questions include: How do I manage the balance between agentic and ‘nice’? How do I stay true to myself while managing this Catch-22? Where do I get the energy to manage this double bind from? For better or worse, the answer betokens the very nature of the problem: we cannot generalise for all women. Save a substantial and significant shift in our perceptions of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a leader, we all need to learn how to ‘dance agentic’ in a way that best honours who we are and what our journey to (and experience of) leadership means to us.