• Managing people

Promoting Nice Guys and Female Leaders

Michigan Ross’s David Mayer on why organizations should support positive behaviours and avoid gender stereotypes


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The value of gender diversity in leadership has been well documented and yet men still greatly outnumber women in most areas of leadership from parliaments to corporate boards. What’s more the men recruited as leaders still tend to fit a typical alpha-male stereotype.  

Various reasons have been cited as barriers to female advancement. One cause must be that talented women are blocked by too many less competent men being recruited or promoted on the basis of outdated stereotypes of what makes a good leader.

In a recent Q&A on Ross Thought in Action David Mayer a professor of management and organizations at Michigan Ross School of Business, spoke on the subject of gender stereotypes and how being a woman or being a ‘nice’ man can hold back the careers of potentially excellent leaders or at least reduce their pay.

He points out how women who display behaviours that are inconsistent with a traditional feminine stereotype are less likely to be hired and are viewed as less competent. While the same type of backlash occurs with men who are perceived to be more agreeable and nicer than average (they earn 18 percent less over their lifetime than men who are more dominant).


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Organizations are missing out because, as Mayer suggests, “stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics including compassion, humility, kindness and being relationship-oriented are ones that lead to better mentoring and leader effectiveness.” So rather than promoting or paying more to men with stereotypical male qualities – overconfidence, extraversion and charisma – organizations should support men and women with qualities, considered to be female characteristics, of high EQ and high self-awareness, that have been proven to underpin effective leadership.

There are things organizations can do. “What if the type of behaviours you actually wanted were encouraged when managers are trained? Also, when we think about who gets promoted, these behaviours are critical to consider. Is this a place where you can act like a jerk and still get promoted?” asks Mayer.

When it comes to fair pay, women make a lot less than men – even than nice guys. This can be true in like-for-like jobs, but across the board unequal pay is more to do with the career paths men and women choose. Mayer suggests that achieving wage parity will be a long path: “You will see a lot more male leaders embracing gender equality with regard to pay. But we don’t quite have a societal shift yet on the socialization of men and women. Girls are being encouraged to code and go into STEM fields. We aren’t seeing the same for boys. We aren’t encouraging them to be teachers or go into helping fields.”

“Women are really leaning in more,” he says. “Research shows that over the last 40 years, women are becoming more stereotypically masculine and a little less feminine. They are adapting to workplace norms. Men don’t seem to be adapting much at all. Part of it is this socialization piece just hasn’t taken off for boys in the same way it has for girls.”

While people say Steve Jobs was so effective because of his harsh personality, Mayer believes he was successful in spite of that personality. "Men and women still have to lead with confidence," he says, "but over the long term, behaviours like empathy, morality, and supporting gender equality are not only the right thing to do but are also beneficial for male leaders.”

He cites Tim Cook from Apple as a male leader with a personality type that doesn’t necessarily fit with the domineering stereotype, who comes across as being someone who is calm, reasonable and feels comfortable advocating for fairness, anti-discrimination and gender equality.

Mayer’s observations underline the need for organizations to always assess leadership potential through objective measurement of intellectual, social and psychological attributes and not get diverted by instinctive judgements based on outdated stereotypes. We need he says, “to understand the qualities of effective leaders and how to train both men and women to enact those qualities.”

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.

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