Running head: LEADERSHIP


Gender Effect on Leadership

Diane Cassidy

North Carolina State University




Gender differences play a major role in the workplace. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disparate numbers of women and men in key leadership positions in many organizations. According to the most recent Catalyst census women continue to be underrepresented in top leadership positions. Catalyst is a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work. Their report states that the average Fortune 500 company had 21.8 corporate officers in 2005; on average, women held only 3.6 percent of these positions. Why is progress in bridging the gender gap in leadership so slow? The impact of society’s expectations and perceptions on male and female roles and behaviors is strong and lasting. Society has long viewed male and female roles in specific ways and has discouraged change in behavior on either side. This paper will address the stereotypical perceptions of gender in leadership, the origins of these perceptions, and the need for greater understanding, acceptance and inclusion of both characteristic sets of behaviors in leadership. There is room, and need, at the top for more than one kind of leadership. Instead of fighting the differences between men and women and pigeon-holing both genders, society would be better served if organizations embraced these differences incorporating the best of both and applying both where appropriate.

Gender Perceptions in Leadership   

            My first car was a 1967 Buick Skylark. It belonged to my grandfather until he passed away at which time it was given to me. As any teenager would be, I was thrilled to have my own car. But what I remember most about that car, aside from its very large size, was the fact that I could never use the bright lights at night. My 5 foot stature prohibited my being able to reach the bright lights control button inconveniently placed on the floor, all the way at the far end of the floor. I could not reach it, plain and simple. Why? Because cars were designed by men, built by men, and driven by men. And men were not 5 feet tall. Little, if any, consideration was given to the other drivers. Instead male engineers focused on what they perceived to be the norm. If it worked for them, it should work for everyone. After all, were they not representative of the average consumer? Still it did not occur to me at the time that it could, or even should, be any other way. I, like many of my contemporaries, accepted this as the way things were.

            A parallel can be drawn to leadership perceptions. Alimo-Metcalf (1995) states it well, “Identifying the criteria for leadership positions from groups of senior managers, all or most of whom (chances are) are male, may well lead to gender-biased criteria for the subsequent assessment process” (p. 7). The results of the Catalyst survey also validated the claims of women that their voices often go unheard or ignored. If women in top positions within an organization are not being listened to by their male colleagues, there is little chance that women in lower positions will be listened to at all. Apparently, there are still those willing to accept things as they way they are.

            Regardless of legislative efforts to increase the number of women in key leadership positions and in other typically male-oriented positions through such practices as Affirmative Action, the situation is not improving quickly enough or powerfully enough to significantly narrow the gender gap in these positions. In fact, it might be said that token positions that are the result of such efforts as Affirmative Action might actually be doing more harm than good in some circumstances. Placing women in positions for which they are not necessarily adequately prepared and not providing them with the necessary support, coaching or mentoring to survive tends to support the view that women should not hold such positions,

            Many believe that the resistance to women as leaders is fundamentally based in these gender-biased perceptions resulting in the disbelief of a woman’s ability to lead if she does not measure up to the expectations and behaviors of her male counterparts. This resistance not only prevents women from entering leadership roles but sometimes affects the way women behave when they do take on leadership roles. Gender differences force women to accept and demonstrate behaviors typically attributed to men whether it is their inherent style or not and whether it is in the best interests of the organization or not.  When women do enter leadership positions, they often behave as their male counterparts. Alternatively, the expected differences in male and female behavior might provide a different type of leadership behavior in women if they resist the urge to merge and do not adopt the behaviors of their male counterparts.

            Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt (1990) report, “Female leaders’ efforts to accommodate their behavior to the sometimes conflicting demands of the female gender and their leader role can foster leadership styles that differ from those of men. Gender roles thus have different implications for the behavior of female and male leaders, not only because the female and male roles have different content, but also because there is often inconsistency between the predominantly communal qualities (kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive) that perceivers associate with women and the predominantly agentic qualities (aggressive, ambitious, self-confident) that they believe are required to succeed as a leader” (p. 785).

            Female leaders tend to emphasize the human side of relationships more so than male leaders, exhibiting the supporting, participatory behavior of a non-directive leadership style. On the other hand, it has long been expected and observed that male leaders tend to exhibit a more autocratic, directive, task-oriented leadership style. This stereotypical expectation of male-versus-female leadership styles is best demonstrated by comparing the transactional and transformational leadership models.

            Transactional leadership is a conventional approach that uses a system of reward and punishment to get subordinates to do what the leader wants. Good behavior, task completion, is rewarded with good reviews, bonuses, salary increases, etc; bad behavior, not getting the job done, is punished by poor reviews, loss of job, etc. The emphasis is on task (transaction). Transactional leaders are task oriented with little, if any regard for the individuals involved on a personal level other than that of appealing to their subordinates’ self-interest of reward versus punishment. Transactional leaders are not interested in changing the individual or developing the individual. They are driven by task only. They do not seek to change how the job gets done; they just want the job done. A study conducted by Alice Eagly, Mary Johannesen-Schmidt and Marloes van Engen pointed out that not only do male leaders favor the transactional leadership style, they also tend to show the negative side of this style by pointing out the failings of their subordinates. But it is not only male-oriented traits that define or improve leadership quality. Nevertheless, these traits and practices represent the perceived expectations of leaders which are typically manifest as well. Good, bad, or indifferent, society has come to expect and accept this as the leadership model.

            Transformational leadership is especially well-suited to today’s competitive and fast-changing organizational environments. Transformational leaders act more as teachers and coaches than as traditional take-charge and take-control leaders who simply tell subordinates what to do. They also act as role models by motivating subordinates to respect them and tend to mentor their subordinates by nurturing their talents and attending to their individual needs. These leaders are often excited about the company’s goals and exhibit a great amount of energy and creativity; transformational leaders are good at looking outside of the box for new solutions to problems (Eagly and Johnson, 1990).

            Society pegs women in roles and relationships that demand great nurturing and caring. Nurturing, compassionate behavior is expected of women and is perhaps why they tend to be more accepting of and in favor of transformational leadership. It’s simply a good fit. Women might also view this as a better style in general. The interpersonal relationships many women tend to be expert at cultivating can serve them well in the workplace. The skills they have developed might, in fact, make them better leaders.

             On a side note, it is interesting that women are considered to be great relationship makers yet this is not viewed as political prowess. In the final analysis, however, politics is all about relationships. Still, it has taken women a long time to fully integrate the male-dominated political arena as well. Leadership perceptions have hindered women’s standing in politics as well as the workplace further corroborating the need to broaden understanding.

            Cecilia L. Ridgeway’s (2001) review of the relationship between gender and leadership uses expectation theory as it applies to gender-leadership relationship in the workplace to describe how “gender status beliefs shape men’s and women’s assertiveness, the attention and evaluation their performances receive, ability attributed to them on the basis of performance, the influence they achieve, and the likelihood that they emerge as leaders. Gender status beliefs also create legitimacy reactions that penalize assertive women leaders for violating the expected status order and reduce their ability to gain compliance and directives” (p. 637). These beliefs provide the very foundation of stereotypes and their related implications of both difference and inequality. Consider if you will the reaction of many men to an assertive woman in the office. She is viewed as aggressive while an assertive man is viewed as a self-assured leader.

Foundations of Societal Gender Expectations

            According to Kirchler, “Sex role socialization starts early in one’s life. Once the sex of a baby is know, parents, grandparents and friends choose pink or blue cloth to wear. The two pastels not only represent a tradition but are signs of a significant differentiation between males and females which begin at birth and continue to segment activities within the family and at work” (p. 364). The subtle and the not-so-subtle gender expectations are presented early and are reinforced often throughout a child’s upbringing.

            Social learning theory informs that girls and boys learn the expectations and limits of their respective genders. In a study conducted by Judith H. Langlois and A. Chris Downs (1980) it was observed that girls received fairly consistent traditional socialization for sex-typed play behaviors: girls were rewarded by both mothers and peers and were praised and given affection by their mothers when they played with same-sex toys. But they were punished by both groups, however, when they played with cross-sex toys. Boys, on the other hand, were treated the same by mothers and peers when they played with cross-sex toys. They were punished by both for this behavior but rewarded by both groups when they played with same-sex toys. This study also noted that mothers were more likely to offer rewards than peers but punishment was more likely to come from their peers than they were from their mothers.

            Fathers play a significant role in gender-moderating behavior as well. In a second study conducted by Judith H. Langlois and A. Chris Downs (1980) it was noted that fathers exhibited differential treatment of sex-typed play behaviors for both sons and daughters but also that they socialized their daughters and sons in different ways. Fathers’ reactions to their children demonstrated more positive reactions to their daughters and more negative reactions to their sons.

            This study presented a good argument for the gender-patterning of male versus female in the workplace as having its roots in a child’s early years. Children are taught what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable in society in terms of gender roles. These lessons carry forward to adulthood and into the workplace where they are passed on to the next generation.

            As stated by Benjamin and Irwin-DeVitis (1998) as a result of their research involving sixth through eighth grade girls, “Though parents and educators frequently profess that they encourage young females to aspire to careers and lives in the public sphere, considerable evidence remains that American classrooms convey the weighty expectations that girls accept as their preeminent destiny, their first and foremost role in life, the mantle of the nurturer and caregiver” (p. 78).  They further stated that “the young people in their research revealed that they understood the dynamics of gender conditioning, and many of the girls, seeing no other way to survive, acquiesced by playing the roles ascribed to them (p. 78). Conversely, women who grow up to assume leadership roles by playing the roles of male instead of female are often deemed as aggressive, overbearing, and other more negative terms.

            The effect of the parenting role assumptions brought to a family relationship have bearing on how children are raised, the role models to which they are exposed, and the beliefs brought to the workplace on the part of both the leader and the follower or subordinate. The traditional roles of mother and father lead to assumptions of who-should-do-what and which boundaries should not be crossed. How mothers and fathers perceive their roles within a family and how they demonstrate this to their offspring, teach their children society’s rules and validate their correctness. But these perceptions also demonstrate their underlying beliefs regarding the male versus female roles in the workplace. For example, if a father sees his role as that of the breadwinner and his wife’s role as that of the caregiver, his children will learn to accept this as right and normal and his attitudes toward women in the workplace will reflect his disagreement with women’s non-domestic participation in work outside the home. His refusal to do domestic work affirms his belief that this is woman’s work and his denial of women in the workplace sends a strong message to his children regarding their roles as adults. A wife who agrees with this perception does nothing more than rubber-stamp her acceptance of these roles and further validates this to her children. While men may pay lip-service to equality in the workplace but it is often just that, lip service. If their underlying beliefs are in discord, their actions will show this in their hiring and promotion practices.

            On the other hand, consider a more progressive, forward-thinking male/female relationship within a family. Mom works full-time outside the home, and so does dad. Or, better still, the traditional mom and dad roles are reversed, mom is the breadwinner and dad is the caregiver. The messages sent to the children are as powerful as those in the first scenario but with opposite effects on the children’s perceptions of their roles in society. Once again, the effect in the workplace can be enormous. Women, who believe in the right, benefit, and overall goodness of women in the workplace, will work to hire and promote other women. Men whose wives work, particularly those who work full-time, outside the home tend to be more accepting of the role of women as equals in the workplace. The parallel between a man’s perception of his roles as father and as leader should not be ignored nor should a woman’s perception of her roles as mother and leader. The two are inextricably linked.  Understanding one leads to a better understanding of the other and more openness to and acceptance of alternative ideas and attitudes.

A Melding of Minds and Attitudes

            When gender status beliefs are effectively salient in a situation, they create implicit performance expectations for women compared to similar men that shape men’s and women’s willingness to speak up and assert themselves, the attention and evaluation their performances receive, the ability attributed to them on the basis of their performance, the influence they achieve, and consequently, the likelihood that they emerge as leaders (Ridgeway, 2001). This is particularly true in a mixed-gender relationship where a female reports to a male. Stereotypes often dictate that in order to maintain dominance, the traits and characteristics of the dominant group must not allow challenge to this dominance by accepting same in the subordinate group.

            Conversely, the characteristics of the subordinate group must remain with that group and not be incorporated into the characteristics of the dominant group in order to maintain the hierarchical schema of the groups involved. For example, the display of emotion is more typically attributed to women than to men. The display of emotion by male leaders is often considered to be a negative action that relegates him to membership in the subordinate group. The display of emotion is more typically considered to be a trait of women, a display of weakness.

            The battle for leadership positions in the organizational hierarchy despite the often contradictory societal hierarchy of beliefs and perceptions can be a daunting fight. Maintaining the delicate balance of leading as you see fit while avoiding stepping on the toes of disbelieving colleagues is quite an awesome task.

            Male and female leaders are expected to gravitate towards and to exhibit different styles of leadership. In actuality, sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. Sometimes they tow the line and keep the status quo. Sometimes the expected style fits and they wear it well. But there are also times when they follow their instincts and go with their gut in an effort to be true to their beliefs and to lead as they see their role. Having discussed the realities of gender differences and their impact on leadership style as well as the expectations of men and women in or desiring of leadership positions, the next focus will be on leadership styles of men and women in the workplace. It was stated earlier that men tend to prefer a transactional leadership approach while women tend to prefer a transformational approach. Both preferences play well into the perceived skill set brought to the workplace by men and women. This is good. But these leadership styles or approaches each have their own merit independent of the gender of the leader exhibiting the particular style.

            Another look at both the transactional and the transformational models of leadership shows the importance and relevance of both types of leadership in an organization. Choosing one over the other need not be a matter of imposed choice or expected behavior but rather the result of a conscious effort to lead according to the best fit for the leader, the followers, and the organization as a whole.

            Transactional leaders do not individualize the needs of subordinates and they do not attend to their professional development. Instead they focus entirely on the self-interest of the leader and the advancement of both the leader and the subordinate through a system of reward and punishment. In a manner of speaking, this is similar to the role of a father within a family. The transactional leader directs what is to be done, rewards good behavior, and punishes bad behavior. The process followed involves two leadership factors: contingent reward and management-by-exception.

            Contingent reward refers to the exchange of work for rewards. The subordinate does the work and the leader provides the reward. The reward can be as basic as the agreed upon wages to be paid upon completion, or as promising as a promotion for a job well done.

            Management-by-exception refers to leadership that involves corrective criticism, negative feedback, and negative reinforcement (Northouse, 2004). This can be done actively or passively; watching the subordinates closely and correcting along the way or waiting until something goes wrong to criticize.

            The results indicated in the Langlois Downs (1980) study mentioned earlier indicated this behavior was exhibited by fathers toward their sons clearly demonstrating a pattern of behavior typical of traditional males and modeled for male offspring. It follows reasoning then that this leadership style would be exhibited by traditional males in the workplace as well.

            Transformational leadership focuses on the interpersonal elements of performance and professional development of subordinates. Transformational leaders tend to be very supportive of others and are effective motivators. They work to build relationships with their subordinates and instill in their subordinates a sense of belonging.

            Idealized influence or charisma is manifest by some transformational leaders resulting in a desire of subordinates to be like them or to emulate them. These leaders tend to be of very high moral caliber and demonstrate strong ethical and moral behavior and beliefs.

            Inspirational influence or inspiration is manifest by transformational leaders who inspire their subordinates, followers, by communicating high expectations of them and by providing the support for them to achieve. The leaders concern for the growth and well-being of followers is highly evident.

            Intellectual stimulation refers to the transformational leaders approach to encouraging and supporting creativity among followers. In contrast with task oriented leadership, this approach is very much concerned not only with getting the task complete but also with how it gets completed.

            Individualized consideration, the fourth of the transformational factors, refers to leaders who listen to their followers and form relationships that are sensitive to the needs of their followers. In so doing they build trust and provide gentle leadership, coaching and mentoring. Again consider the Langlois Downs (1980) study and the behavior of the mothers. Transformational leadership more closely emulates the role of a mother, nurturing, guiding, and helping her children towards self actualization.

            Following tradition and the expected behavior of men and women, transactional and transformational leadership styles each have a niche for all leaders in the workplace. A leader gravitating towards one or the other according to that person’s comfort level and preferred style does not have to be gender-driven as both styles have proven effective in the workplace. There are situations that warrant each type of leadership but the gender of the leader should not be the determining factor.  

            Michael Thompson’s conducted a study to examine the differences in gender between a ‘‘balanced’’ or ‘‘unbalanced’’ orientation of leadership, leadership characteristics, and the perceived effectiveness of educational leaders through subordinate responses in the context of Bolman and Deal’s (1991, 1997) four-frame leadership theory and Quinn’s (1988) competing values model.  His study also lends credence to the aforementioned statements regarding male preference for transactional leadership and female preference for transformational leadership styles. Thompson asserts that Bolman and Deal (1991, 1997) and Quinn (1988) acknowledge the multitude of measurable variables in leadership effectiveness and prescribe a multidimensional approach in understanding the personal attributes, leadership style, and situational contexts of leadership behavior.

Table I. Bolman and Deal’s Theory of Four-Frame Leadership Styles

Structural Frame (the assembly plant)

The structural frame emphasizes efficiency and effectiveness. Structural leaders make the rational decision over the personal, and strive to achieve organizational goals and objectives through coordination and control. They value accountability and critical analyses. Specialization and division of labor are used to increase performance levels. Problems in performance may result in restructuring.

Human Resource Frame (the clan)

The human resource frame emphasizes the individual. Human resource leaders value camaraderie and harmony within the work environment, and strive to achieve organizational goals through meaningful and satisfying work. They recognize human needs and the importance of congruence between the individual and the organization.

Political Frame (the coliseum)

The political frame emphasizes competition. Political leaders value practicality and authenticity, and strive to achieve organizational goals through negotiation and compromise. They recognize the diversity of individuals and interests, and compete for scarce resources regardless of conflict. Power is an important resource.

Symbolic Frame (the shrine)

The symbolic frame emphasizes meaning. Symbolic leaders value the subjective, and strive to achieve organizational goals through interpretative rituals and ceremonies. They recognize that symbols give individuals meaning, and provide direction toward achieving organizational purpose. They recognize unity and a strong culture and mission.

Source: Bolman and Deal (1992, 1997).

            Thompson’s central assumption was that effective leaders must be able to use all four functions ant not rely on any one or two solely.  His findings suggested that leaders who utilize three or four leadership frames (moderately balanced or fully balanced), regardless of their leadership dimension, are perceived to be more effective in their leadership role. Thus, those who demonstrate the ability to encompass the cognitive complexity or use of multiple leadership frames associated with the ability to reconcile the competing demands of the working environment, yield a more effective leadership style than those who rely upon one or two leadership frames or an ‘‘unbalanced’’ leadership style.

                Thompson’s study also demonstrated that any differences in the perceived effectiveness and leadership dimensions of leaders are equally true for male and female leaders. Furthermore, female and male leaders in this sample were perceived to be equally effective. The evidence of the present study indicates that women who possess the cognitive complexity to use three or four of the leadership frames and the ability to develop diverse behavioral repertoires of leadership within their respective organizations are perceived by their subordinates as equally effective as males. Hence women do, in fact, demonstrate the qualities necessary to lead and manage organizations equally as well as men (Thompson, 2000).

            In essence, it’s the leadership prowess of the individual and not the gender that matters. Women are indeed capable of effective leadership and the ability to follow different leadership models or styles is in an organization’s best interest.  Any approach is neither right nor wrong in all situations. Leadership styles need to fit the leader as well as the situation.

            The situational approach to leadership (Blanchard and Zigami, 1985) further represents the need for balanced leadership.


High Supportive


Text Box: Support

 Low Supportive


High Directive


High Supportive



Low Supportive


Low Directive



High Directive


Low Supportive



Modified depiction of the illustration created by Blanchard (1985).

Directing leaders define tasks and supervise closely.

Coaching leaders define tasks but seek input from followers

Supporting leaders leave decisions to followers

Delegating leaders remain involved in decisions but leave control to the follower


            Different situations require different styles at different times. Blanchard and Zigami’s model demonstrates the varying degrees of both support and direction necessary in different leadership situations depending on the abilities and actions of the subordinates, once again demonstrating the need for varying leadership styles within the same organization and by the same individual leader. Different situations mandate different approaches possibly even from subordinate to subordinate reporting to the same leader or from task to task among the same subordinates. Gender has no bearing whatsoever regarding the rationale or effectiveness of a particular quadrant of leadership. What matters is that more than one be effectively applied.

            There is no doubt that gender has had a major impact on leadership availability and fulfillment in the workplace. Though women have struggled for a long time to effect positive change with respect to hiring and promotion practices enabling women to secure leadership positions, the struggle is clearly not over. Even though the numbers are improving they are doing so slowly.

            Gender identification begins at a very early age and continues throughout one’s life. Societal pressure to fit a stereotypical role is ever-present and strong, however overt or subtle it may be. What is learned in childhood regarding gender identification remains with each individual throughout childhood and often carries over into adulthood manifesting itself in attitudes toward gender and leadership.

            Male and female preferences for leadership style may or may not fit the mold expected of either gender but this is not important. There is sufficient room for multiple styles of leadership in an organization. There is tremendous need for multiple styles too. The overall success of an organization is often dependent on the successful deployment of multiple leadership styles both within the organization and among the organization’s leaders. The ability to adapt to the needs of the situation, the organization, the leader, and the follower can be the deciding factor in the success of both the organization and the leader. Combining the best that either gender has to offer does not mean giving up or giving in but rather it represents an awakening of consciousness and an acceptance of the reality that people make the difference, be they male or female.


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