Gender & Temperament: The One-Two Punch That Can Hold You Back

The gender gap in leadership is persistent and pervasive: while women outnumber men in college and earn more college degrees, they hold, on average and across all industries, just 16 percent of leadership positions. For women of color, the statistics are even more disturbing: Asian, black, and Hispanic women make up less than 4 percent of executives and managers. A parallel analysis of the temperament gap in leadership reveals that although 50 percent of the workforce self-identifies as introverts, 96 percent of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts. Whether we acknowledge it or not—whether our biases are conscious or implicit—we are living in society that privileges the male extroverted leader: masculine, alpha, gregarious, and bold.

Why does this matter? Gender and temperament equality at the top benefits everyone: such diversity is proven to enhance creativity and boost productivity. Without gender- and temperament-inclusive cultures, organizations suffer from innovation deficits. A recent HBR study found that a 30-percent increase in the female share of corporate leadership is associated with a 15-percent increase in profitability, and a National Bureau of Economic Research study discovered that introverted CEOs run companies with 2 percent higher returns on assets. Without drawing on the strengths of a diverse workforce, we severely limit our chances of being led by the most qualified individuals who can build teams to create sustainable change. Susan Cain, author of bestseller Quiet and co-founder of Quiet Revolution, noted: “The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.”

An investigation of the intersection of gender and temperament provides much-needed clues as to what is holding women back, which can lead us to a blueprint for disrupting this bias. The key to understanding the root of the problem is what Joan C. Williams refers to as tightrope bias. Women leaders are expected to navigate a tightrope between being seen as competent (with related stereotypically male qualities of competitiveness and assertiveness) and compassionate (with related stereotypically female qualities of nurturance and sensitivity). When women ambitiously “take charge” with a sense of conviction and act in stereotypically masculine ways, they are often deemed unlikable. Negative descriptors such as demanding, bossy, rude, aggressive abound. One particularly compelling study shows that women receive 2.5 times the amount of feedback men get about aggressive communication styles: “He is a driver; she is pushy. He is quick; she is agitated.”   

When faced with criticism for being bossy, women end up modifying their behaviors to act in a more quiet manner, which may involve any one or more of the following:

In this way, quiet becomes a cultural reflex for women, as women simply learn to refrain from sitting at the table or speaking up in meetings.

Yet, such “good girl” behavior has profound consequences for women’s advancement, as shown by the Yale Law Women’s Report on Gender Dynamics and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Anita Borg Institute. The first reveals that “different forms of social punishment” influence women to participate less than men in their classes, which then contributes to widespread perceptions that they are passive and unassertive—less fit to lead. The latter shows that technical women in management positions in Silicon Valley are likely to be viewed as less technically competent than their male peers—again, less fit to lead.  

Looking at this issue through the lens of temperament, we can surmise that such social conditioning affects both extroverts and introverts. Extroverted women are held back from being their true selves, and women who are hardwired as introverts endure significantly more risk when trying to flex beyond their comfort zones and speak up when the time is right.

But there is another factor to consider for the introverted women—approximately 50 percent of the female population—who thrive in minimally stimulating environments and require solitude to deliberate and recharge: The tremendous effort that it takes to be both respected and liked constitutes a serious threat to their well-being. In other words, the dual pressure to be a spotlight-loving quick decision-maker and a socially adept caretaker constitutes a kind of double-dipping in the extrovert ideal.

With such enormous pressures, it is no wonder that the temperamentally quiet woman may decide to retreat to the sidelines, choosing not to live a highly counter-dispositional life—or even leave prematurely as a result of burnout. In fact, research by Cambridge psychologist Brian Little shows that a life characterized by excessive self-monitoring can lead to severe health problems. Further, Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at Insead, France, found that spending too much time on monitoring how one is perceived takes critical time away from getting the job done and can thus be inherently counterproductive.

Oftentimes, leadership coaching for women and girls centers around the pressing need to learn how to speak up, loud and proud, with a focus on self-promotion and personal branding. Isn’t this a flawed solution whereby bias in one form—the extrovert ideal—is being used to combat bias in another form—gender discrimination? With this “loud and proud” message as a solution, we will continue to overlook the precious and unique talents of our introverted female leaders. Susan Cain underscored this issue: “In our efforts to instill confidence in young women, are we promoting an ideal of sassy outspokenness that’s just as confining as the 1950s model of docility?”

In nurturing all female leaders, we need to be sure to identify and honor the strengths of influential quiet role models. What are the key strengths of these quiet leaders? First, introverts tend to think before they speak. They are likely to be contemplative, mild-mannered, and cautious decision-makers. According to Wharton psychologist’s Adam Grant’s research, taking time to carefully weigh options and not rush a decision can benefit all members of a team and lead to better, more creative outcomes. Second, introverts tend to be excellent problem-solvers and deep thinkers. They have incredible abilities of focus and concentration, coupled with a desire to master complicated tasks through hours of deliberate practice. Such unassuming, humble individuals become great leaders precisely because they possess authentic conviction for a particular mission; they are not “in it” for personal fame or glory (see Jim Collins for more on this). Finally, introverts tend to be really good listeners, which builds trust and enables leaders to actualize the potential of team members. Deep listening is a valuable leadership skill that can produce remarkable outcomes with proactive team members.

We can only hope that as more women assume and stay in positions of influence, the possibility of disrupting—rather than simply navigating—gender and temperament bias will become a viable option.

Don’t we all deserve gender and temperament equity at the top to bring our best strengths to the fore?

Want to help create a culture where women and introverts thrive? Learn more about the Quiet Tech Network in collaboration with the Anita Borg Institute. 

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