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Personality Characteristics of Male and Female Executives: Distinct Pathways to Success?
University of Antwerp
Brenton M. Wiernik
University of South Florida
Amelie Vrijdags and Nikola Trbovic
Hudson Research and Development
Journal of Vocational Behavior
Bart Wille (corresponding author), Department of Training and Education Sciences, University
of Antwerp. Sint-Jacobsstraat 2-4, 2000 Antwerp. Belgium. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brenton M. Wiernik, Department Psychology, University of South Florida. 4202 East Fowler
Avenue, PCD 4118G Tampa, Florida 33620-7200. USA. E-Mail: email@example.com
Jasmine Vergauwe, Department of Developmental, Personality and Social Psychology, Ghent
University. H. Dunantlaan 2, 9000 Ghent. Belgium. E-Mail: Jasmine.firstname.lastname@example.org
Amelie Vrijdags, Hudson Research & Development, Moutstraat 56, 9000 Ghent. Belgium. E-
Nikola Trbovic, Hudson Research & Development, Moutstraat 56, 9000 Ghent. Belgium. E-
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 2
Personality Characteristics of Male and Female Executives: Distinct Pathways to Success?
It is widely believed that female and male leaders have fundamentally different characteristics
and styles, which are thought to explain why organizations with more gender-diverse top
management teams perform somewhat better. Unfortunately, few studies have concretely
specified such differences or examined whether men and women in leadership roles, particularly
executives, indeed differ on core psychological characteristics such as personality traits. Drawing
on three alternative perspectives on the roles of personality and gender in leadership ascendancy,
this study (a) examined whether men and women are more similar among executives than among
non-executive employees, and (b) tested whether similar traits distinguish executives from
lower-level employees across genders. Data were from a large (N = 577) sample of European
executives (434 male, 143 female) and 52,139 non-executive employees (34,496 male, 17,643
female) who completed high-stakes personality assessments. Results generally supported a
gender-similarities perspective. Gender differences on leadership emergence-relevant traits (i.e.,
Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Extraversion) were smaller among executives compared
to non-executives. Further, similar traits distinguished executives from non-executives across
genders. Both male and female executives tend to demonstrate an archetypical “leader
personality” focused on assertiveness, high-level strategic thinking, and decisiveness. However,
results also showed that hierarchical level differences in personality were much more strongly
pronounced among women than men. Implications for gender equity in organizational leadership
Keywords: gender differences; leadership ascendancy; upward mobility; extrinsic career
success; hierarchical level
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 3
Personality Characteristics of Male and Female Executives: Distinct Pathways to Success?
There is growing interest among organizations and society at large for increasing the
representation of women among organizational top management teams and providing more
equitable opportunities for women to advance to critical organizational leadership roles
(McKinsey & Company, 2015; Noland, Moran, & Kotschwar, 2016). Beyond moral and ethical
arguments for the intrinsic value of ensuring equitable leadership opportunities for women,
numerous meta-analyses have found that organizations whose top management teams are more
gender diverse tend to perform somewhat better than other organizations (Hoobler, Masterson,
Nkomo, & Michel, 2016; Post & Byron, 2015). Organizations and researchers have explored a
variety of methods for encouraging and supporting women’s advancement to executive
leadership positions (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011; Hillman, Shropshire, & Cannella, 2007).
Despite these efforts, beliefs that female leaders are fundamentally different from male
leaders remain widespread (Eagly, 2007). Such beliefs range in valence from stereotypes that
women are too passive, too emotional, or otherwise unable to lead (Carli & Eagly, 2016) to more
positive beliefs that women possess unique worldviews, cognitive frames, or personal
competencies that make them uniquely qualified and capable as leaders (Eagly, 2016; Lammers
& Gast, 2017). Many proponents of the latter view argue that women leverage unique skills to
advance and perform in leadership roles. Underlying full range of such beliefs is an assumption
that male and female leadership reflect two distinct populations with unique characteristics.
Unfortunately, very few studies have concretely tested this assumption by examining the extent
to which men and women in leadership, particularly high-level executive, positions indeed differ
on measurable psychological characteristics (Hoobler et al., 2016).
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 4
Early studies finding gender similarities (cf. Hyde, 2005, 2014) among managers
regarded these results as quite radical. For example, Templeton and Marrow (1972) noted that
“the dilemma for a woman having managerial aspirations is often to deny her femininity or her
managerial authority” (p. 32). It is unclear whether these similarities persist in contemporary
organizational contexts. Larger-sample, contemporary investigations of gender differences
among executives, applying modern advances in personality structural theory (John, Naumann,
& Soto, 2008) are needed to evaluate early findings. The current study uses a large sample of
top-level executive and non-executive employees assessed using a comprehensive framework
(the Pan-Hierarchical Five Factor Model; Stanek & Ones, 2018) and at multiple levels of the
personality trait hierarchy (Markon, 2009). Examining gender differences in both broad and
narrow traits is critical because substantial differences in narrow traits may be diminished, or
even zeroed out or reversed, when traits are aggregated to assess broader constructs at a higher
hierarchical level (e.g., McCrae et al., 2005; cf. Kostal, Wiernik, Albrecht, & Ones, 2018). It is
also critical to examine differences in relevant compound personality traits combining variance
from multiple Big Five domains, as these traits are often the most predictive of work and career
outcomes (Ones, Viswesvaran, & Dilchert, 2005). This study investigates gender similarities in
executives’ complete personality profiles in two ways. First, we compare the personality profiles
of male and female top (C-level) executives and quantify the degree to which these groups are
similar or different on a broad set of stable personality traits. The magnitude of these personality
differences between male and female executives is compared against gender-based personality
differences in a large non-executive sample. Second, we consider potential gender differences in
the leadership ascendancy process that may create two distinct populations of male and female
executives by examining whether distinct personality profiles differentiate executives from
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 5
lower-level occupationally-diverse employees among men and women. Together, these
investigations can inform theoretical accounts of leadership advancement among women and
guide career development practice for women pursuing leadership roles and organizations
seeking to diversify their management teams. These investigations can also suggest new
directions for research on the mechanisms through which gender diversity in leadership impacts
To guide our research questions, we draw on three alternative perspectives on the roles of
gender and personality in leadership ascendancy. The first argues that executive positions are
strong situations (Judge & Zapata, 2015) that exert consistent job demands and selection
pressures, regardless of gender. The second argues that evaluations of individuals’ behavior are
driven by congruity with gender roles, leading to different job demands and evaluation criteria
for male and female leaders. The third perspective argues that leadership role demands are
consistent across genders, but that changing standards for leadership behavior permit men and
women to leverage distinct profiles of traits to ascend to executive positions. Before outlining
these alternative perspectives in greater detail, we highlight research on gender differences in
personality traits and the critical role of personality for leadership ascendancy and success.
Gender Differences in Personality and their Implications for Leadership
Robust evidence abounds supporting small to moderate mean gender differences on a
range of personality traits (Hyde, 2014; McCrae et al., 2005; Schmitt, Realo, Voracek, & Allik,
2008). Women tend to score weakly to moderately (ds ≈ .20–.55) higher on more “communal”
traits, such as Agreeableness, the Enthusiasm aspect of Extraversion (sociability, positive
emotionality), and the Orderliness aspect of Conscientiousness (organization, cautiousness), and
lower on Emotional Stability, as well as “agentic” traits, such as the Assertiveness aspect of
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 6
Extraversion (dominance, energy), and the Industriousness aspect of Conscientiousness
(achievement, persistence; Stanek & Ones, 2018). These differences are consistent across
personality measures and raters (McCrae et al., 2005) and larger in countries with greater
economic development and gender equality (Schmitt et al., 2008).
Importantly, career and organizational research has linked many of the traits showing
gender differences with leadership and upward career mobility, including extrinsic career success
(Ones & Dilchert, 2009), leader emergence (Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002), and
leadership performance (Bono & Judge, 2004). Thus, gender personality differences might
suggest that fewer women would enter leadership roles and that those women who do might be
less effective than men. However, several meta-analyses have concluded that gender differences
on leadership effectiveness tend to be small and potentially favor women (Eagly, Johannesen-
Schmidt, & van Engen, 2003; Paustian-Underdahl, Walker, & Woehr, 2014). Thus, it is possible
that men and women who ascend to leadership positions demonstrate different suites of traits;
such gender-specific pathways have not been previously considered in large-scale studies of
personality and leadership success.
Perspectives on Personality and Gender Roles in Leadership Ascendancy
Multiple theoretical and empirical perspectives can be brought to bear to inform our
investigations of the personality profiles of male and female executives. Whereas some
perspectives predict similar personality profiles and ascendancy pathways for men and women,
others suggest at least partly gender-specific trait profiles.
The Gender-Invariant Role Demands Perspective
Implicit leadership theory predicts that we choose as leaders people who display
tendencies we perceive as “leader-like” (Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994; Rosenthal & Pittinsky,
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 7
2006). In other words, we select leaders who match our stereotypical conception of the leader
role (Lord, Foti, & De Vader, 1984; Shondrick, Dinh, & Lord, 2010). These processes influence
not only selection for leadership roles by others, but also self-perceptions of leadership ability
and pursuit of leadership opportunities (Carbonell & Castro, 2008; Dickerson & Taylor, 2000).
Studies have consistently found that heightened levels of agentic qualities (e.g., assertive,
competitive) and reduced levels of communal qualities (e.g., compassionate, friendly) are most
associated with perceptions of leadership ability, potential, and effectiveness (Carli & Eagly,
2016). These qualities are stereotypically “masculine” and ascribed more to men than women
(Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011; Schein, 1973; Spence & Buckner, 2000).
These masculine, agentic evaluative standards appear to be applied relatively equally to
both men and women, potentially leading many women to receive lower leadership ratings due
to perceptions that they are less agentic and more communal (Melamed & Bozionelos, 1992;
Pullen & Vachhani, 2018). Indeed, women often face pressure to adapt their interpersonal style
to be more masculine in order to compete against men (e.g., for higher-level employment; Pullen
& Vachhani, 2018; Wessel, Hagiwara, Ryan, & Kermond, 2015). Consistent with impression
formation models, which emphasize the need for clear, unambiguous information about a
person’s counter-stereotypical attributes to overcome stereotypes (Uleman & Kressel, 2013),
women often must possess (or simply present) exaggerated levels of confidence, independence,
and assertiveness to be judged as qualified for leadership (Scott & Brown, 2006; Wessel et al.,
2015). Thus, implicit leadership theory and impression formation models suggest that leadership
roles exert strong selection pressures that consistently emphasize agentic characteristics across
genders. As a result of these gender-invariant pressures, the personality profiles of both men and
women who have attained executive positions might indeed be highly similar.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 8
The consistency of leadership role demands is further supported by job analytic research
and practice, which finds similar task responsibilities and employee characteristic demands
across a wide range of managerial, leadership, and executive occupations (Campbell, 2013).
Occupants of managerial positions at all levels show similar trait profiles that become
increasingly pronounced at higher organizational levels (Ones & Dilchert, 2009). Leadership
positions appear to present relatively clear and consistent guidelines for behavior and effective
performance. Taken together, these three approaches (i.e., implicit leadership theory, impression
formation models, and job analysis) suggest that executive leadership roles are similar for men
and women, potentially leading to similar psychological profiles for male and female executives,
as well as similar leadership ascendancy pathways across genders.
Several early, small-sample studies comparing male and female managers on isolated
personality characteristics have provided initial support for the gender similarities perspective.
These studies found that managers were high on agentic traits, such as dominance, responsibility,
achievement, and self-assurance, and low on communal nurturance, regardless of gender (e.g.,
Brenner, 1982; Brenner & Greenhaus, 1979; Offermann & Beil, 1992; Sachs, Chrisler, & Devlin,
1992; Steinberg & Shapiro, 1982), with managerial samples showing smaller gender differences
than in the general population (Melamed & Bozionelos, 1992).
The Gender-Role Congruity Perspective
Men and women are judged against different standards when evaluating their leadership
potential and effectiveness. Social role congruity theories (Eagly, 1987; Eagly & Karau, 2002)
posit that there are clear expectations for both men’s and women’s behavior, and social and
economic sanctions (i.e., backlash) may occur when an individual displays counter-stereotypical
or social norm-violating behavior. For example, men who display high levels of communal traits
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 9
may be evaluated as weak or overly sensitive (Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Rudman, 2010),
whereas women who present themselves as self-confident, assertive, and competitive may be
perceived as bossy, arrogant, cold, “shrill,” or unfeminine (Phelan, Moss-Racusin, & Rudman,
2008) and face social and economic reprisals (Rudman & Phelan, 2008).
With regard to ascendancy to leadership, the gender-role congruity perspective thus
posits that women advance to high-level positions not through agentic actions, but through work
behaviors that exemplify gender-role congruent communal qualities, such as interpersonal
facilitation, teamwork, and participative decision-making. Indeed, there is voluminous evidence
showing that violating feminine niceness prescriptions adversely affects women’s promotion
prospects (Heilman, 2001; Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012; Lyness & Judiesch, 1999) and
leadership effectiveness evaluations (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992), as well as studies
finding that female leaders are more negatively evaluated when they use more assertive
strategies, such as intimidation (Bolino & Turnley, 2003) or discipline (Atwater, Carey, &
Waldman, 2001; Brett, Atwater, & Waldman, 2005).
The Changing Leadership Roles Perspective
A third perspective argues that the nature of leadership roles themselves are changing.
Similar to the first perspective (and unlike the second perspective), this changing leadership roles
perspective argues that there are clear role demands associated with leadership positions which are
consistent across genders. However, unlike the first perspective, the changing leadership roles
perspective assumes that these role demands have gradually changed over time. More specifically,
leadership and management performance are increasingly recognized to be multidimensional, with
distinct performance facets that require unique personal characteristics and competencies
(Campbell, 2013; Campbell & Wiernik, 2015). Thus, while traditional agentic, “masculine” traits
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 10
may be important for some leadership criteria (e.g., leader emergence, Judge et al., 2002; idealized
influence, inspirational motivation, Bono & Judge, 2004; initiating structure, Campbell, 2013),
more communal traits are equally important for other criteria (e.g., consideration, empowerment,
coaching, Campbell, 2013; intellectual stimulation and other aspects of “transformational
leadership,” Bono & Judge, 2004). In light of increasing recognition of the importance of
consideration, transformational leadership, and related constructs (e.g., servant leadership;
Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002), as well as technological changes requiring more democratic leadership
styles (Lipman-Blumen, 2000; McCauley, 2004), Koenig et al. (2011) meta-analytically showed
that leader stereotypes are becoming gradually less masculine and more inclusive of feminine
(communal) qualities, such as sensitivity, understanding, and warmth.
In sum, evidence suggests that, subsequent to the early studies on gender differences in
management described above (e.g., Brenner & Greenhaus, 1979; Templeton & Marrow, 1972),
societal and cultural shifts have fostered a broadening of leadership roles which may in turn
enable women in high-level positions to demonstrate distinct personal strengths emphasizing
more communal dimensions of leadership performance. This perspective offers a complementary
explanation to the gender-role congruity perspective for the occurrence of potential gender
differences in contemporary leadership ascendancy.
The alternative perspectives described above produce competing hypotheses regarding
gender differences in personality traits among executives, as well as gender differences in the
leadership ascendancy process.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 11
Gender Differences among Executives and Non-Executives
The first set of two competing hypotheses address the occurrence of gender differences in
personality traits between male and female executives, and more specifically how these compare
to gender differences in personality traits in the larger, non-executive population. The theoretical
question at stake here is whether executive positions exert similar personality demands across
genders, such that leadership ascendancy has a homogenizing effect.
Gender similarities. The gender-invariant role demands perspective posits that
executive positions exert strong role demands that lead organizations to select (and individuals to
self-select) for high levels of agentic traits for both male and female executives. Because these
selection pressures are posited to be consistent across genders, this perspective theorizes that
leadership ascendancy has a homogenizing effect on gender personality distributions—men and
women in higher corporate ranks are selected for (or adapt to) increasingly severe and similar job
demands (Melamed, 1996). In terms of observed personality profiles, this perspective predicts
that male and female executives are more similar (as compared to male and female non-
excutives) in their personality traits.
Hypothesis 1a: Personality gender differences are smaller among C-level executives than
among non-executive samples.
Gender differences. The gender-role congruity perspective posits that men and women
are evaluated according to gendered behavioral norms, such that men are expected to
demonstrate agentic traits and women to exemplify communal traits. Individuals who violate
these norms, such as women high on assertiveness and competitiveness, are judged harshly and
face backlash, hindering their advancement and leading personality gender differences to persist
even among high-level executives. The changing leadership roles perspective can complement
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 12
this process by suggesting that one way through which women can advance in the face of
selection against women with traditionally “leader-like” agentic traits is by emphasizing
emerging aspects of leadership performance, such as transformational and democratic leadership,
that rely on more traditionally-feminine communal traits. Thus, these perspectives predict that
gender differences in observed personality profiles that are present in the general population will
persist among individuals at high levels of organizational leadership hierarchies.
Hypothesis 1b: Personality gender differences among C-level executives are similar to
those among non-executives, with men showing higher levels of agentic traits and women
showing higher levels communal traits.
Gender Differences in the Leadership Ascendancy Process
The next set of two competing hypotheses address the occurrence of gender differences
in the personality profiles that differentiate executive from non-executive employees. In other
words, are the traits that differentiate between executives and non-executives the same for men
Gender similarities. The gender-invariant role demands perspective similarly posits that
men and women follow similar leadership ascendancy pathways, such that individuals higher on
agentic traits will tend to advance to higher organizational levels. Thus, this perspective predicts
that similar patterns of (high agentic, low communal) traits will distinguish executives from non-
executive employees across genders.
Hypothesis 2a: The traits that differentiate C-level executives and non-executives are
generally the same for men and women.
Gender differences. By contrast, both the gender-role congruity and changing
leadership roles perspectives posit that men and women demonstrate different competencies in
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 13
the process of hierarchical advancement. Whereas men may follow traditionally “leader-like”
agentic pathways to leadership ascendancy, women instead emphasize communal traits and more
interpersonally-sensitive leadership behaviors, such as teamwork, consideration, and
participative decision-making, to get ahead. While female leaders may, relative to female non-
leaders, still exhibit more agentic qualities (as these traits are necessary for setting and achieving
high advancement goals; Fuller & Marler, 2009), negative selection will cause such differences
to be smaller than among men.
Hypothesis 2b: Traits that differentiate C-level executives from non-executives are
gender-specific. Male executives will be differentiated by agentic traits, whereas female
executives will be differentiated less by agentic traits and more by communal traits.
Setting and Participants
A large international consultancy firm specialized in recruitment and assessment provided
European assessment data. Anonymized data were obtained for 577 European executives (434
male, 143 female) and 52,139 non-executive employees (34,496 male, 17,643 female) who
completed high-stakes personality assessments between 2002 and 2008. Participants were
primarily located in Belgium (466 executives [397 male, 69 female], 42,930 non-executives
[27,433 male, 15,497 female]), with a smaller number located in other European countries (111
executives [37 male, 74 female], 9,209 non-executives [7,063 male, 2,146 female]).
Personality was assessed using the Business Attitudes Questionnaire (BAQ; Bogaert,
Trbovic, & Van Keer, 2008; Vrijdags, Bogaert, Trbovic, & Van Keer, 2014), a workplace-
contextualized personality instrument developed for organizational applications, such as
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 14
personnel assessment and screening. The BAQ includes 25 work-related personality scales. BAQ
scales assess 20 personality facets subsumed under the Big Five traits (see Appendix), as well as
5 compound personality traits (cf. Ones et al., 2005; Stanek & Ones, 2018) that are particularly
relevant for work contexts (Ambitious, Critical, Result Oriented, Strategic, Autonomous),
collectively grouped under the label “Professionalism”. The 25 BAQ-scale scores are computed
as the mean of six item scores per scale, with each item rated on a 5-point Likert scale
(1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). Big Five domain scores are computed by averaging
scale scores for their four respective facet scales. Descriptions of the 25 BAQ facets are provided
in the Appendix.
The psychometric properties of the BAQ have been reviewed and certified by the
Psychological Testing Centre of the British Psychological Society (BPS), an independent and
leading organization for setting standards in psychological testing. BPS-certification involves a
multi-round revision process through which reliability, construct validity, and predictive
criterion-related validity are established. The BAQ scales have been shown to predict critical job
performance criteria, including subordinate (direct report) evaluations of executives’ job
competencies and non-executives’ first-year performance appraisal scores, consistent with meta-
analytic findings (Barrick, Mount, & Judge, 2001; Ones et al., 2005). In terms of convergent
validity, the BAQ manual reports substantial correlations with Big Five dimensions as assessed
by other work-contextualized personality inventories (cf. Shaffer & Postlethwaite, 2012), such as
the OPQ32 (SHL, 2006)—.46 (Emotional Stability), .51 (Extraversion), .47 (Openness), .64
(Agreeableness), and .55 (Conscientiousness). The BAQ manual also reports similar correlations
with non-contextualized personality scales, such as the NEO PI-R (Costa & McCrae, 1992)—.43
(Emotional Stability), .53 (Extraversion), .45 (Openness), .08 (Agreeableness)
, and .47
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 15
(Conscientiousness). These values are consistent with meta-analytic estimates of mean
convergent validities and 95% credibility intervals for Big Five scales (Pace & Brannick, 2010).
To test our hypotheses, we computed standardized mean differences (Cohen’s d) on the
BAQ scales for four sets of group comparisons. To test whether men and women are more
similar among executives than among non-executive employees (Hypothesis 1a vs. 1b), we
compared male–female differences among C-level executives to gender differences among non-
executive samples (i.e., gender differences in personality across hierarchical levels). To test
whether similar traits distinguish executives from lower-level employees across genders
(Hypothesis 2a vs. 2b), we compared executive to non-executive groups among male and female
samples (i.e., hierarchical level differences in personality across genders). Because sample sizes
were widely divergent for executive and non-executive groups, we estimated sampling error for
d values using the formula accounting for unequal group sizes (Schmidt & Hunter, 2015).
To control for possible country-level mean differences on personality traits which might
affect observed gender and hierarchical level differences (Ostroff & Harrison, 1999), we
computed comparisons separately within the Belgian (BAQ administered in Dutch or French)
and other European (BAQ administered in English) samples, then combined the within-country d
values using psychometric meta-analysis (Schmidt & Hunter, 2015; cf. Ones et al., 2012) with
the psychmeta package in R (Dahlke & Wiernik, 2017). For each comparison, we computed the
inverse variance-weighted mean effect size and its confidence interval.
We interpreted effect
size magnitudes using the empirical effect size distributions of applied psychological research
established by Paterson et al. (2016), characterizing d values less than .24 as negligible, between
.25–.41 as small, between .42–.65 as moderate, and d values of .65 and greater as large (cf.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 16
Wiernik, Kostal, Wilmot, Dilchert, & Ones, 2017), noting that most relations with demographic
characteristics tend to be small (mean d = .24, SD = .18).
Gender Differences in Personality across Hierarchical Levels
Comparisons of men and women for C-level executive and non-executive samples are
shown in Figures 1 and 2. Among non-executive samples, women scored somewhat higher on
Altruism (Agreeableness, d = .27) and Conscientiousness (d = .20) and somewhat lower on
Emotional Stability (d = -.21) and Extraversion (d = -.21). Facet-level traits generally showed
similar differences, with some exceptions (e.g., women scored slightly higher on Change
Oriented, d = .16, but slightly lower on Rational, d = -.16). Among C-level samples, differences
on Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Extraversion were more muted or absent
altogether (ds range -.03 to .10). These smaller gender differences on leadership-relevant traits
among executives support the gender-invariant role demands perspective, which argues that
executive positions have a homogenizing effect. Thus, Hypothesis 1a was supported, whereas
Hypothesis 1b was not.
However, personality traits that are likely to be under weaker selection pressure (i.e., less
relevant for leader emergence; Judge et al., 2002) did not show a similar homogenizing pattern.
Executive women continued to show higher levels of Altruism/Agreeableness (d = .39) and the
Change Oriented (d = .34) and Abstract (d = .21) Openness facets, compared to executive men,
though confidence intervals for Altruism/Agreeableness were quite wide.
Hierarchical Level Differences in Personality across Genders
Comparisons of C-level executive to non-executive respondents for men and women are
shown in Figures 3 and 4. Among men, C-level executives scored much higher than non-
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 17
executives on Extraversion (d = .49, facet ds range .29 to .52) and the Decisive facet of
Emotional Stability (d = .28), as well as somewhat lower on the Abstract (d = -.21), Helpful
(d = -.21), and Meticulous (d = -.23) facets. Male C-level executives also scored higher on the
Results Oriented (d = .48), Strategic (d = .43), and Autonomous (d = .19) compound traits.
Among women, executives showed a similar overall pattern of differences compared to
non-executive respondents as men, but the magnitudes of these differences were often much
exaggerated. Executive women scored much higher than non-executive women on Extraversion
(d = .61, compared to .49 for men), Decisive (d = .57, compared to .28 for men), Results
Oriented (d = .23, compared to .48 for men), Strategic (d = .53, compared to .43 for men), and
Autonomous (d = .32, compared to .19 for men). Executive women also scored lower than non-
executive women on Meticulous (d = -.50, compared to -.23 for men).
This pattern of differences suggests that women ascending to leadership positions
demonstrate similar personality characteristics as ascending men. Both male and female
executives tend to demonstrate an archetypical “leader personality” focused on assertiveness,
high-level strategic thinking, and decisiveness. However, we found that this pattern of
hierarchical level differences was much more pronounced among women than among men,
which may suggest that selection pressures on agentic traits are even stronger among women
than among men to be chosen for (and self-select into) high-level leadership roles. The picture
that emerges is one of the C-suite as a professional role with strong demands for an agentic
personality profile, with the threshold to fit this leadership profile being further away for the
average woman compared to the average man.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 18
In this study, we used a large sample of male and female executives and non-executive
occupationally-diverse employees to examine gender differences among top-level managers in
organizations, as well as potential gender differences in leadership ascendancy processes. Our
results show that male and female leaders are not fundamentally different populations. We found
that gender differences on broad, narrow, and compound personality traits are smaller among
executives than among lower-level occupationally-diverse employees, which is in line with the
idea that executive roles exert similar selection pressures for men and women. We also found
that similar patterns of traits distinguished executives from non-executives among men and
women and, importantly, that executives (male and female) are consistently characterized by
mainly agentic personality features. Our findings thus generally do not support the idea that
women ascending to leadership roles demonstrate a distinct profile of more communal
characteristics, either to conform to gender-role norms or in response to broadened leader role
demands. Instead, our findings support a gender-similarities perspective where men and women
in executive positions demonstrate a similar pattern of classically masculine personality traits.
Interestingly, consistent with impression formation models, the pattern of hierarchical
level differences was much more strongly pronounced among women than men, which may
suggest that women in particular face pressure to adopt masculine interpersonal styles in order to
be judged (by themselves or others) as qualified for leadership. The personality traits that
distinguish female executives support a conclusion that women must be truly exceptional in their
display of “leader-like” qualities to advance to the highest organizational ranks; to advance to
executive roles, women “must do everything men do, backwards and in high heels” (cf.
Richards, 1988; Thaves, 1982).
Implications for Gender Equity in Organizational Leadership
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 19
Our findings have implications for organizational efforts to promote gender equity among
their leadership. First, organizations must ensure that female executives are not penalized for
demonstrating agentic, typically masculine personality traits. In contrast to widespread beliefs
that female leaders have distinct characteristic personalities and styles (Eagly, 2016), we found
that gender differences among executives are generally small and that the same pattern of
elevated traits distinguished executives from non-executives across genders. In light of research
showing that women are penalized for agentic traits (Phelan et al., 2008), our findings suggest
that female executives (as well as women pursuing executive positions) are at particular risk for
sanctions and backlash. Organizations must strive to counter these biases, such as by raising
awareness of gender stereotypes, taking a zero-tolerance approach to gender-based devaluations,
and implementing more-structured evaluation and promotion systems (Ely & Thomas, 2001; cf.
Hoffman et al., 2012).
Second, in the general population, women tend to be lower on the traits that lead
individuals to pursue and be selected for leadership roles (McCrae et al., 2005; Schmitt et al.,
2008). As a consequence, a relatively small pool of women is likely to be represented among
organizational leaders (particularly high-level executives), even in the absence of bias effects. As
women rise in the hierarchy, they become increasingly scarce, making them more visible and
subject to greater scrutiny (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011). Organizations, therefore, must ensure that
current and rising female leaders are given adequate resources, support, and mentoring to foster
development and success (Tharenou, 2005). There are diverse perspectives on how such female-
leadership development programs should be organized (cf. the “add-women-and-stir” approach
discussed by Martin and Meyerson, 1998, p. 312; versus the “fix-the-woman” approach
presented in Ely & Meyerson, 2000). A recent framework presented by Ely, Ibarra and Kolb
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 20
(2011) is consistent with the overall message of the current study. This framework is grounded in
theories of both gender and leadership; it shows how gender shapes women’s paths to leadership
without either victimizing or blaming women, while at the same time cultivating in women a
sense of agency. In this approach, leadership development is seen as an identity transition (Day,
Harrison, & Halpin, 2008), with gender having an impact on the processes of both claiming and
granting a leader identity. For example, just as women may need to (learn how to) proactively
negotiate for promotions they might otherwise not get, managers as gatekeepers can (learn how
to) reconsider the relevance of the implicit criteria they use to fill critical upper-level roles.
Third, in addition to preventing adverse treatment by others, organizations should also
strive to ensure that women with high leadership potential and interest do not self-select out of
high-level positions. In addition to providing female mentors and role models (Carbonell &
Castro, 2008; Tharenou, 2005), organizations might also consider providing formal leadership
potential feedback to reduce misperceptions of ability (Brands & Fernandez-Mateo, 2017),
adopting career planning programs that explicitly direct employees to explore leadership
pathways (Wiernik & Wille, 2018), and implementing practices that enhance work–family
balance (Lyness & Judiesch, 2008).
Theoretical Implications for Gender Diversity and Organizational Success
Our results also have implications for ongoing research and theoretical development
exploring when and how gender diversity in leadership impacts organizational success (Knight et
al., 1999). Much of the research finding higher performance for firms with female leaders
attribute these effects to unique “cognitive frames” (Post & Byron, 2015) or “worldviews”
(Mensi-Klarbach, 2014) that female leaders may bring into organizations because of their unique
developmental experiences. However, our results suggest that male and female executives reflect
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 21
fundamentally similar populations, at least in terms of underlying personality traits. Thus, higher
performance among female-led firms may not reflect the influence of women per se, but instead
reflect broader benefits and covariates associated with merit-based governance, equitable
organizational cultures, and corporate social responsibility (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012).
Limitations and Future Directions
Five limitations of this study should be noted. First, we focused on how people describe
their own personality traits. Personality self-perfections are critical drivers of people’s identities,
the interactions and activities they are willing to enter, the roles they are willing to perform, and
how they perform them (Hogan & Roberts, 2000), and they converge strongly with personality
other-ratings (Connelly & Ones, 2010). However, personality other-ratings (i.e., their
“reputation”; Hogan & Shelton, 1998) also provide unique insights and incremental validity
(McAbee & Connelly, 2016). Future research should consider gender differences in supervisor-,
peer-, and subordinate-ratings of executive personality, particularly with regards to the
interaction of gender and personality other-perceptions on executive selection decisions.
Second, beyond considering alternative personality rater sources, future research should
also consider using alternative personality instruments. The current study relied on actual
organizational testing data which were collected using a proprietary personality instrument. As
an applied field, it is critical that we consider psychological instruments that are used primarily
in organizational practice, and that we be open to the insights that can be drawn from practitioner
data (Ones, Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Svensson, 2017). This is particularly the case when
the research topic requires data which are difficult (or impossible) to obtain without practitioner
collaboration, such as C-level personality information (Cycyota, & Harrison, 2006; Resick,
Whitman, Weingarden, & Hiller, 2009). Nevertheless, it remains to be examined to which extent
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 22
the findings resulting from these data replicate with other personality instruments. One potential
concern with the current study is the low correlation of the BAQ Altruism scale with NEO PI-R
Agreeableness (but note its substantial correlation with OPQ Agreeableness; see Footnote 1).
Third, while this study found strong evidence that similar traits distinguish executives
from non-executives across genders, it investigated the ascendancy process only indirectly. We
were unable to disentangle personality traits’ impacts on self-selection/executive career goal
pursuit versus other-perception, evaluation, and selection. It is possible, for example, for our
findings to reflect that only particularly agentic women are willing to persist through
discouraging discriminatory experiences to attain leadership roles. Future research should
examine these nuances in the ascendancy process using longitudinal designs wherein hierarchical
transitions are systematically monitored over time. Such designs should consider non-linear trait
effects (e.g., women face backlash unless they are exceptionally high on agentic traits) and
interactions among agentic and communal traits (e.g., communal traits might compensate for
agentic traits). Longitudinal designs can also control for potential maturational effects caused by
leadership role experiences (i.e., individuals becoming more agentic as they climb the corporate
ladder; e.g., Bleidorn, Hopwood, & Lucas, 2016; Nieß & Zacher, 2015), which might also make
executives more homogeneous and divergent from non-executives.
Fourth, this study examined the roles of personality and gender in leadership ascendancy
in a large sample of employees from numerous organizations in Belgium and other European
countries. It is possible that gender-invariant and gender-specific influences of personality traits
on leadership emergence and ascendancy may vary across national and organizational contexts.
For example, one might hypothesize that gender differences in leadership ascendancy pathways
might be larger in more gender egalitarian countries and organizations, as such contexts may
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 23
have more progressive attitudes about women’s equality and provide female leaders with more
freedom to express more feminine qualities (e.g., Hoobler et al., 2016; cf. Schmitt et al., 2008;
though note that Belgium, the country for most of the current sample, is among the most gender-
equitable countries [12/160 according to the UN Gender Inequality Index]; UNDP, 2016).
Finally, this study focused on executives’ personality profiles, rather than on other
antecedents of leadership behavior or on evaluations of performance or effectiveness.
Preliminary research suggests that perceptions of “potential” (including personality traits,
abilities, and other characteristics) and prior experiences and successes differentially influence
leadership selection judgments for male and female applicants (Barsh & Yee, 2011; Player,
Randsley de Moura, Abrams, & Tresh, 2017). An interesting avenue for future research would be
to consider interactions between personality and experience in driving executive selection
decisions and whether these effects differ across genders.
This study found that male and female C-level executives represent similar populations
with a common profile of characteristic agentic, strategic personality traits. Ongoing research
and practice should acknowledge that gender similarity, not difference, characterizes leader
personality and potential (cf. Hyde, 2014). Continued organizational attention to reducing gender
biases and remove structural barriers will help both men and women to realize their similar
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 24
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GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 37
The low correlation between Agreeableness measures on the BAQ and NEO likely reflects that
the BAQ Altruism (Agreeableness) scale includes items related to warmth and social connection,
which the NEO PI-R includes on its Extraversion scale. However, warmth and social connection
reflect compound traits tapping both Agreeableness and Extraversion (see Davies, 2013; Stanek
& Ones, 2018). Their inclusion with Agreeableness facets is consistent with many other widely-
used personality inventories (e.g., the Hogan Personality Inventory; Hogan & Hogan, 1992; the
OPQ; SHL, 2006). This correlation is also consistent with the stronger correlations observed
between OPQ and BAQ Agreeableness and between OPQ and NEO Agreeableness, two scales
that are both widely-regarded as assessing the Agreeableness construct (mathematically possible
correlations between BAQ and NEO Agreeableness, given correlations between BAQ and OPQ
Agreeableness and between BAQ and NEO Agreeableness [r = .575; SHL, 2006] range -.26
As each meta-analysis was based on two samples, we focused our interpretations of results on
the mean effect and its confidence interval, rather than estimates of true variability (Wiernik,
Kostal, Wilmot, Dilchert, & Ones, 2017). For most comparisons, confidence intervals for the
Belgian and other European samples overlapped substantially.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 38
Table A1. Descriptions of Business Attitude Questionnaire (BAQ) scales.
Feels anxious or guilty in the event of
failure; worries, lacks calm, is nervous
Free from anxiety, maintains calm in the
face of failure, is calm and relaxed
Expects things to go badly, worries about
how things will turn out; is pessimistic
Confident that things will turn out well;
does not worry about how things will turn
out; remains cheerful
Susceptible to stress; has difficulties
coping with tension and pressure;
becomes affected by situations quickly
Is not susceptible to stress, particularly
bothered by tension and pressure, or easily
affected by situations
Hesitates over decisions; needs time to
Makes decisions quickly; draws
Lets others take the lead; lacks initiative;
does not like giving instructions
Likes to lead; shows initiative; instructs
Is averse to speaking; has difficulty
keeping a conversation going; is not very
Likes speaking; keeps conversations going
easily; is very articulate
Is a poor salesperson; is ill-at-ease during
negotiations; is not convincing
Is able to sell; is at ease during
negotiations; is persuasive
Is uninspiring; is not a motivating
influence; does not motivate others during
Inspires others, is a motivating influence,
fills others with enthusiasm for a task
Deals in concrete things; has both feet on
the ground, is practical-minded
Theoretical, is intellectually curious, likes
complex, abstract things
Lacks inventiveness and creativity; rarely
comes up with new ways of looking at
Is creative; generates new ideas and
comes up with new ways of looking at
Prefers routine, needs security; prefers
regularity to variety
Likes change, tries out new things; prefers
variety to regularity
Does not see many possibilities; has
trouble thinking up alternatives and
Sees various possibilities; thinks up
alternatives and options
Enjoys being alone; does not need and is
not very fond of company; focuses on self
Enjoys group situations, is fond of and
seeks out company, focuses on others
Rarely consults or involves others, does
not seek out cooperation, places own
interests above those of the group
Consults and involves others; seeks out
cooperation, places group’s interests
Self-involved, lacks a helpful attitude, is
unconcerned about others, lacks
consideration, leaves others to fend for
Helps when others face problems;
gives advice and is considerate
Finds it hard to establish contacts; does
not always get along with people; can at
times be unfriendly and unpleasant
Establishes contacts easily, is cheerful;
gets along with people; is friendly,
pleasant, and spontaneous
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 39
Does not work to a plan, pays insufficient
attention to time limits, pays little
attention to routine tasks
Plans carefully, taking priorities into
account; sets time limits, pays attention to
Not very methodical or meticulous; has
little eye for detail
Works methodically and meticulously;
pays attention to details
Pays little attention to facts; relies on
intuition, tends not to quantify; speaks or
Sticks to the facts; evaluates, measures,
and quantifies; thinks twice before
speaking or acting
Loses heart quickly, gives up when
opposed; drops tasks quickly; rarely sees
things through to a successful conclusion
Does not give up in the face of setbacks;
keeps trying and perseveres; is persistent
in the face of opposition, gets stuck into
Not very career-minded, lacks ambition;
sets moderate objectives
Career-minded and ambitious; sets
difficult objectives; wants to go far and to
Does not take a very critical mindset;
accepts information or ideas from
others without questioning them
Examines information critically; identifies
potential drawbacks and limitations
Is not very results-oriented; feels little
need to achieve great results; is not
Likes to achieve results and to stand
out; is very competitive
Sets short-term objectives; looks at things
from an operational or short-term
Sets long-term objectives, looks at things
from a strategic or long-term perspective
Adapts to situations; takes circumstances
into account; does not have own approach
Influences and leaves own mark on
situations; has own approach and opinions
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 40
Figure 1. Gender differences among non-executives (N = 17,643 women, 34,496 men). Values
are inverse variance-weighted mean Cohen’s d values, with 95% confidence intervals. Positive
values indicate that women score higher.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 41
Figure 2. Gender differences among executives (N = 143 women, 434 men). Values are inverse
variance-weighted mean Cohen’s d values, with 95% confidence intervals. Positive values
indicate that women score higher.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 42
Figure 3. Hierarchical level differences among men (N = 434 executives, 34,496 non-
executives). Values are inverse variance-weighted mean Cohen’s d values, with 95% confidence
intervals. Positive values indicate that executives score higher.
GENDER, PERSONALITY, LEADERSHIP 43
Figure 4. Hierarchical level differences among women (N = 143 executives, 17,643 non-
executives). Values are inverse variance-weighted mean Cohen’s d values, with 95% confidence
intervals. Positive values indicate that executives score higher.