Gender Norms

When It Comes to Displays of Emotion and Power at Work, Female Leaders are Trapped

For every dollar a man makes, a woman only makes 77 cents. But what’s talked about less is that women are substantially absent from leadership positions in the workforce: they comprise of only 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs (Warner, 2014). Despite the fact that more women are obtaining college degrees (at all levels) than men (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2012), women still face institutional obstacles in attaining prestigious leadership positions. And the biggest obstacle of all seems to be fighting restrictive gender norms.

Gender norms are defined by societies, and both men and women are socialized into them from day one. They influence perceptions, expectations and evaluations we make on a daily basis, including in the workplace (Ragins & Winkel, 2011)

One of the biggest obstacles is that women are still perceived as less competent than men (Ragins & Winkel, 2011), which can be traced back to Aristotle’s philosophy that equated men with logic and women with emotions. By nature, men are perceived as more agentic, and therefore capable of controlling their pesky emotions, whereas women are perceived to be products of their emotions. This belief is not eradicated simply by raising a woman’s competence through education, either – even with positional power held constant, female leaders are perceived to have less interpersonal power than male leaders (Ragins & Winkel, 2011).

So what’s going on? In the workplace, individuals are expected to display emotions that satisfy either gender or work-role expectations, which leads to a double bind for female leaders – managerial work-role expectations conflict with female gender-role expectations of subordination (Ragins & Winkel, 2011). In contrast, managerial work-role expectations coincide nicely with male gender-role expectations of dominance and superiority.

Take a moment to reflect on what you associate with the word “manager.”

Did you by any chance envision a man in a suit? Perhaps he is “taking charge” of a stressful situation, confidently and assertively. He may have even raised his voice at his employees to make his point. And while this may make onlookers feel uncomfortable or defensive, it does not cause one to immediately question his demeanor or authority, let alone label him as “out-of-control.”

Those who are perceived as having status are expected to display emotions that are congruent with perceptions of power. The problem is that perceived status in the workplace is affected by characteristics such as gender and race, which are culturally defined on a group level and then generalized onto each individual (Ragins & Winkel, 2011).

Because emotions such as anger and confidence are part of the male gender-norm, displaying such emotions actually builds power for men. But for women, displaying these same ‘masculine’ emotions can hinder their power-base because they are breaking the expectations created by the female gender-norm (Ragins & Winkel, 2011).

For example, billionaire Warren Buffett recently stated that Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is an advocate of financial reform, would “do better if she was less angry and demonized less,” because it “does not help when you demonize or get too violent with the people you’re talking to” and working with (Covert, 2015, para. 2-3). When is the last time you’ve heard a prominent male figure label a male politician as too angry and demonizing for the political realm?

The double-bind equates to this: if a female manager displays too much emotion, she is in violation of her work-role. If she displays an ‘inappropriate’ emotion (such as aggressiveness), she is in violation of her gender-role (Ragins & Winkel, 2011). Displaying too much of an inappropriate emotion is especially catastrophic for a woman’s image, as evident by Warren Buffet’s remarks. However, if a female manager consistently displays gender-appropriate emotions, such as nurturance and admiration, she depletes her power-base because these emotions actually build the power of others. All situations create cycles of powerlessness for female leaders (Ragins & Winkel, 2011).

So how do we fix this double-bind scenario for women leaders? We can start by breaking our own expectations of what a female leader should and shouldn’t be. Think back to the last time that you thought a female manager, or even a female co-worker, crossed the emotional line – maybe a time when she raised her voice, or outwardly expressed frustration. Was her reaction warranted? Or did you immediately ascribe it to her ‘emotional nature?’ Most people’s answer to the second question should be “yes” – these gender-role expectations are ingrained, even for women.

Now that we’ve established that most of us are guilty of creating a double-bind for women in the workforce, it’s time to change our perceptions and to pass the information along. Challenge your co-workers to evaluate workplace behaviors with you so you have people to discuss sticky situations with. You may be surprised at how quickly perceptions and assumptions will start to change for the better.


Covert, B. (2015, March 2). Warren Buffet says Elizabeth Warren is too ‘angry’ and ‘violent’ with rich people. Think Progress. Retrieved from 3628454/buffett-warren-angry/

Ragins, B. R., & Winkel, D. E. (2011). Gender, emotion and power in work relationships. Human Resource Management Review, 21, p. 377-393.

U.S. Deptartment of Education (2012). Fast facts. In National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Warner, J. (2014, March 7). Fact sheet: The women’s leadership gap. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from 2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/