Woman on a High Wire

While women have made significant progress in obtaining professional positions and are equally represented as men in middle-level positions, women are still a rare sight at the top of organizations or on boards of directors (Catalyst, 2014; 2015). Researchers have offered numerous explanations for this phenomenon such as societal roles, family obligations, organizational barriers, lack of mentors and the list goes on. 

However, there is growing evidence that the belief women are more emotional than men represents a barrier to the top few women are able to overcome (Brescoll, 2016).  Polls have consistently found a majority of men and about one-third of women believe women are too emotional to be in top leadership roles (Dolan, 2014). This stereotype persists despite evidence to the contrary that men and women report experiencing emotions at about the same level (Else-Quest, et al., 2012). So why does this stereotype continue to exist?

Many researchers hypothesize that because women are less likely than men to inhibit the display of emotions, it leads people to conclude that women allow their emotions to cloud their judgment (Brescoll, 2016; Fitzsimmons & Callan, 2016).

The irony of this stereotype is it's women’s ability to show empathy, compassion,  develop strong relationships, and inspire others that makes them especially good leaders (Eagly, et al., 2003; Yee, 2015).  Women have to walk a "high wire," balancing the display of these leadership emotions, with the male model of a leader generally thought of as stoic, heroic, and in-charge. 

One of the greatest challenges women have is to learn how to choose what, when, where, and how much emotion display.  Display too much empathy and you are considered “soft”; display too little and you are considered the “B” word. So what is the answer? 

Well, unfortunately there isn’t a rule book to follow, nor can anyone else answer this for you.  The answer to this question depends on so many contextual and situational factors that only you know, in the moment, what is right for you.  Learning how to regulate your emotions gives you the opportunity to “pause” before responding, and then make a decision based on how to react with purpose and intention. 

While it is true, that many may initially see this “pause” as calculating and inauthentic, over time, they will begin to see you as a balanced, caring, and non-judgmental leader.


Brescoll, Victoria L. (2016). Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 415-428.

Catalyst (2014). Catalyst 2014 census: Women board directors. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/2014-catalyst-census-women-board-directors

Catalyst (2015). Women CEOs of the S&P 500. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-ceos-sp-500

Dolan, Kathleen A. (2014). When does gender matter? Women candidates and gender stereotypes in American elections. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eagly, A., Johannesen-Schmidt, M. C., & van Engen, M. (2003). Transformational, transactional and lasses-faire leadership styles: A meta-analysis comparing women and men. PsychologicalBulletin, 129(4), 569-591.

Else-Quest, N. M., Higgins, A., Allison, C., & Morton, L. C. (2012). Gender differences in self-conscious emotional experience: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 947-981.

Fitzsimmons, Terrance W. & Callan, Victor, J. (2016). Applying a capital perspective to explain continued gender inequality in the C-suite. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 354-370.


To read additional blogs, click on a tag of interest.