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Ideas for Leaders #788

How Women Leaders Overcome Conflicting Expectations

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Key Concept

Societal expectations concerning gender and leadership attributes pull women leaders in opposite directions: if strong, they are criticized for not being empathetic or likeable; if empathetic, they are criticized for not being strong enough. The best women leaders thrive by managing these tensions through a paradox mindset.

Idea Summary

Women leaders must manage conflicting stereotypical role expectations. Their gender role expectations are centred on what psychologists call communal attributes, such as kindness, empathy and nurturing. At the same time, their leadership role expectations involve agency attributes, such as being aggressive and self-confident.

These simultaneous, contradictory expectations often trap women leaders in no-win situations. On the one hand, if they display attributes associated with their gender such as empathy, they are seen as lacking in leadership qualities. If they display leadership qualities such as strength and dominance, however, they are seen as lacking empathy and other attributes expected in women—and as a result face a backlash that their male colleagues never face. 

For many women leaders, this often leads to an internal identity battle in which they must choose between showing their authentic selves (“who I am”) or acting in a less authentic but more acceptable manner for leaders (“who I am required to be in my role as a leader”). 

Not surprisingly, these consistent, contradictory external pressures, and the internal conflicts that result from such pressures, can lead to stress, anxiety, self-consciousness and a range of other negative emotions.

Building on prior research in the areas of leadership, gender studies and psychology, three researchers offer a solution to the frustrating clash of societal expectations for women leaders: the paradox mindset. 

When women leaders believe they have to somehow reconcile two sets of incompatible expectations, they face an intractable dilemma. If women leaders believe, however, that leadership and their gender expectations are both contradictory and complementary—hence the paradox—they will not only survive but even thrive as women leaders.

With a paradox mindset, women leaders embrace the tensions between identities instead of fighting them, seeing these tensions as opportunities rather than obstacles. This positive mindset not only makes women leaders more resilient and mitigates any identity crisis, but even enhances their effectiveness as leaders. Numerous research studies have shown the leadership advantage of combining agency and communal attributes. Women can be more persuasive and influential as leaders because their style is warmer and less domineering. In addition, having a portfolio of contrasting attributes gives women leaders a broader range of tools to deal with complex situations. As an example, the researchers point to one study of professional women in law firms who incorporated both agency and communal attributes in their self-descriptions, a combination that they believed contributed to their success in the profession.

Business Application

According to the research, three important factors enable and encourage women leaders to adopt a paradox mindset:

Openness to experience. Openness to experience is the willingness to explore the novel and unfamiliar, including new experiences, new ideas, new behaviours, or new values. Individuals rated high on openness, are also able to accept complexity, conflict and fluidity. 

Role models. For women leaders struggling with apparently conflicting expectations, role models showcase a path forward. They not only demonstrate that managing the paradox is possible, but also offer an invaluable guide on how to manage the paradox by modelling identities, attitudes, and rules of behaviour that lead to success.

Organizational learning orientation. Organizations with a learning orientation—that is, the willingness of the organization to explore and accept new ideas, and to proactively question long-held assumptions—create a culture in which people rely less on the older assumptions governing the behaviour and attributes of leaders and women. In such a culture, women leaders are encouraged to challenge traditionally diverging expectations of gender and leadership and explore ways to accommodate different attributes. 

Based on these factors, women leaders and their organization can take specific steps to help women embrace the paradox mindset and leverage the mindset into leadership success. 

Women leaders can:

  • Question their assumptions and attitudes about the inevitable conflict between leadership and gender expectations 
  • Strengthen their paradox mindset through leadership development programs that concentrate on identity development and that offer opportunities to explore new ways of thinking, behaving and being 
  • Seek out and learn from role models who successfully combine the attributes of strength with warmth and empathy to be effective leaders

Organizations can introduce and model the paradox mindset to their women leaders by:

  • Exposing women leaders to relevant role models
  • Training women leaders in managing the paradox of conflicting yet complimentary expectations 
  • Instilling an organizational learning culture that encourages women leaders to be creative in their leadership, and instils an open attitude about leadership attributes throughout the organization

Organizations can also implement practices to mitigate the conflicting expectations of women leaders, including

  • Increasing the number of women in leader roles
  • Promoting leadership models that incorporate agency and communion
  • Supporting less rigid gender role beliefs

Contradictory societal or organizational expectations that put strong women leaders at a disadvantage are fundamentally unfair. Although progress is being made, women leaders cannot wait for such expectations to disappear. This research suggests that women leaders can succeed as leaders despite the inherent inequities in expectations if they favour a positive and proactive paradox mindset.

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Idea conceived

  • October 2018

Idea posted

  • March 2021

DOI number



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