Leaders exist in myriad types of groups. Yet in many of them—including in organizational, political, and educational domains—leadership roles are disproportionately occupied by individuals of certain social categories (e.g., men, white individuals). Speaking to this imbalance in representation, there is a wealth of theory and research indicating that gender and race are key to understanding: (a) who tends to get placed in leadership roles, and (b) what an individual’s experience will be like while in that role or on the path to it. In part, this is because there are commonly held stereotypes that make certain individuals—often those of socially dominant racial and gender groups—seem better suited for leadership. By comparison, individuals of other genders and races are often perceived and evaluated as less suitable and treated as such (e.g., deprived of opportunities to become leaders or develop leadership skills). These stereotypes can also elicit disparate internal states (e.g., stereotype threat, internalized negative self-perceptions) that affect individuals’ likelihood of pursuing or obtaining such roles (e.g., by affecting their motivation or performance). In this way, leadership dynamics are intimately connected to the study of gender and race.
Overall, these dynamics involve several psychological processes. This includes myriad forms of gender and racial bias—discrimination in evaluations, pay, hiring, promotions, and in access to role models, mentorship, and support; backlash effects, queen bee effects (self-group distancing), glass cliff effects, motherhood penalties, and fatherhood bonuses. It also involves multiple lines of theorizing—role congruity theory, lack of fit, masculine defaults and ambient belonging, modern sexism, aversive racism, social identity threat, and others.
Looking ahead, there are several critical directions for advancing research on gender, race, and leadership. This includes examining leadership processes from a more precise, intersectional lens rather than studying the implications of one’s gender or race in isolation (e.g., by integrating work on intersectionality theory, gendered races, and intersectional invisibility). Future study of these processes will also need to consider other relevant social identities (e.g., reflecting class, religion, age, sexuality, ability and neurodiversity, nationality, and immigration status), along with a more thorough consideration of gender—going beyond the study of (cisgender) men and women to consider how transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are perceived and treated in leadership roles or on the path to such roles. Additionally, and ultimately, it will be critical to develop effective strategies for addressing the underrepresentation of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other social groups in leadership. In part this will mean carefully evaluating strategies now being employed (e.g., organizational diversity messages, quotas and affirmative action, mentorship programs)—including those that may be largely ineffective, if not causing harm (e.g., implicit bias training, campaigning for women to “lean in”). Addressing the lack of diversity in leadership will be a crucial step toward tackling broader issues of social inequity.