Female impression management

Global Leadership Development Programs
Date Published

A common theme in our work is impression management: how you control or influence others’ perceptions of you.

It matters for how you show up as a leader and manager, and has tangible consequences for situations in which you may regularly find yourself, including consensus building, chairing meetings, and client or supplier relationship building.


We look at impression management as it relates to stereotypes about women’s leadership styles. Here, we share two typologies offered in the 1970s by Hammer and Kanter, respectively. Why do we consider 1970s research relevant here? Because although there have been significant shifts in the conversation and expectations around gender equality at work, on the ground we still witness very different outcomes and expectations for women. These are predominantly related to how women should act, and what this means for the degree to which they are considered to be: (a) nice, and not a bitch, bulldozer, or overacting; (b) competent, and not needing help nor lacking sufficient expertise; and (c) worth listening to on the basis of their own individual merit.

We witness men, women, and those who choose not to identify treating women in ways that suggest a different standard is applied to them. The overt language and behaviors may have changed, but too often these are simply superseded by indiscernible transgressions. From the apparently liberal, pro-equality men, to the femme lesbians: there may be obstacles in front of us, but we certainly have Trojan horses in our midst. While a more comprehensive treatment of this is beyond the remit of this piece, we have insufficient reason to believe that stereotypes of women in the workplace have shifted enough beyond the stereotypes presented by each of Hammer and Kanter in the 1970s to render them unhelpful.

4 stereotypes of female leaders

In the somewhat provocatively titled article, "When Women Have Power Over Women" (1978), Hammer describes four stereotypes of women leaders:

1. The earth mother, who brings homemade cookies to meetings and keeps the communal bottle of aspirin in her desk;
2. The manipulator, who relies on feminine wiles to get her way;
3. The workaholic, who struggles to delegate responsibility; and
4. The egalitarian leader, who denies the power of her leadership, and claims to relate to subordinates as one of them

Kanter meanwhile looks at women leaders whose work contexts are primarily in a man’s world. In "Men and Women of the Corporation" (1977), she identifies four core stereotypes of women leaders:

1. The mother, who provides solace, comfort, and aspirin;
2. The pet, who is the “little sister” or mascot of the group;
3. The sex object, who fails to establish herself as a professional; and
4. The iron maiden, who tries too hard to establish herself as a professional, and is seen as more of a tyrant than she actually is

It’s interesting to reflect further on what Kanter’s stereotypes suggest about how women may be perceived in male-dominated work environments:

1. The mother – “I nourish others and look after their wellbeing”
2. The pet – “I am nice but not essential to have around. You can find me in a role on the sidelines since I rally around and/or supplement the key players (who know better than I do)” (This is not intended to say that this is what younger sisters, or pets, are or do.)
3. The sex object – “I am primarily an object for your sexual interest”
4. The iron maiden – “I am a hard, cold woman who has her sights set on obtaining and exercising power. I try extremely hard which in large part explains why I am where I am.”

The above stereotypes are not a far cry from how women leaders are often perceived today, whether or not it is overtly voiced. There is also an interesting distinction between Hammer’s apparent ‘women on women’ view, and Kanter’s more male-dominated disposition towards women. In Kanter’s taxonomy, stereotypes represent two core personae, (a) that of the woman who supports or gratifies others, and (b) that of the woman who is too hard and cold, and who possibly acts beyond her level of true competence. By contrast, where women play a greater role in stereotyping their women leaders we see greater variation in the core personae. Here the categories are of women leaders who: (a) support; (b) get their way using a combination of support and gratification; (c) work too hard and take on too much (suggestive of misjudgement, overreach, control issues), and; (d) are in denial about what their position means in power and relational terms (suggestive of boundary awareness issues, ‘loneliness at the top’, issues exercising power).

Leveraging stereotypes in the workplace

The above stereotypes are useful in the practice of impression management because they provide us with insight into how people might use their own preconceptions plus societal and organisational cues to classify what kind of person their woman leader is. From there, this stereotype becomes an easier and quicker way for them to anticipate and interpret our behaviors. It also informs how they strategically ‘handle’ us and navigate with respect to us when it comes to their own professional and personal objectives.

Equipped with a view on how others perceive us, we gain insight into how our behaviors and actions are likely to be read, responded to, and, in some cases, used by them. We can use this understanding to adjust how we show up, gradually altering our leadership style and others’ perceptions of the type of woman leader we are. It goes without saying that we hope that new, more positive stereotypes of women leaders emerge as the dialogue around gender equality evolves, and deep-rooted, often unconscious expectations of women do also.

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