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Leadership Cognitions

Why are women still underrepresented in leadership roles? Although the number of prominent women leaders has increased considerably, men continue to occupy the majority of top-level roles and positions of power. In one line of research at SRBL, we focus on understanding leadership cognitions (how people think of leadership) in relation to gender to shed light on the difficulties that women continue to experience rising to the top.

For example, in one project, we examine how contextual features influence people’s gendered perceptions of leaders. Leaders are typically seen as highly “agentic” (ambitious, independent), which aligns with the way people usually see men rather than women. However, in some professional contexts in which communal behaviors are strongly valued, leaders may also be expected to be highly “communal” (warm, interdependent), which aligns with the way people usually see women rather than men. In a series of experiments, we’ve examined these contextual features systematically to investigate how they shape people’s perceptions of leaders along the dimensions of agency and communality, and why they do so (Vial & Cowgill, 2023). These studies reveal that, although all leaders tend to be viewed as highly agentic, leaders in care-oriented domains (e.g., healthcare) and leaders who oversee primarily female staff are also viewed as highly communal—more so than leaders in non-care-oriented domains (e.g., marketing, finance, technology) or leaders who oversee primarily male staff. Importantly, these factors work separately, combining to make leader roles in care-oriented, female-dominated areas most compatible with people’s stereotypes of women. These studies also show that one key factor that drives people’s gendered leadership cognitions is the quality of interpersonal interaction they anticipate in different professional domains. Thus, whereas the “prototypical leader” might be masculine (highly agentic and not very communal), there are many contexts in which the most suitable leader in people’s minds might be feminine (highly communal). 


These findings have important theoretical implications, articulating the distinct roles of care-orientation and gender composition in shaping gendered leadership cognitions. They also have practical implications 

for understanding why women leaders tend to be concentrated in traditionally female domains and why they continue to be scarce in many other arenas. Specifically, our findings help explain why women may be drawn to leadership roles in some domains more than in others, and why they might encounter less bias and resistance in those domains.

Vial, A. C. & Cowgill, C. (2023). Think manager, think female: When leaders are viewed as communal (and why). Manuscript in preparation.

Further research on leadership cognitions:

Vial, A. C. & Dorn, F. (2023). What an ideal leader should (and should not) be like: Gendered prescriptions and proscriptions for leaders. Manuscript in preparation.

​Vial, A. C. & Cimpian, A. (2023). Gender differences in children’s reasoning about and motivation to pursue leadership roles. Sex Roles, in press.

Vial, A. C. & Cowgill, C. (2022). Heavier lies her crown: Gendered patterns of leader emotional labor and their downstream effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 849566. PDF.

Vial, A. C., & Napier, J. L. (2018). Unnecessary frills: Communality as a nice (but expendable) trait in leaders. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1866. PDF.

Brescoll, V. L., Okimoto, T. J., & Vial, A. C. (2018). You’ve come a long way… Maybe: How moral emotions trigger backlash against women leaders Journal of Social Issues, 74(1), 144-164. PDF.

​Vial, A. C., Brescoll, V. L., Napier, J. L., Dovidio, J. F., & Tyler, T. R. (2018). Differential support for female supervisors among men and women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(2), 215-227. PDF.

​Vial, A. C., & Napier, J. L. (2017). High power mindsets lower gender identification and benevolent sexism for women (but not men). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 68, 162-170. PDF.

​Vial, A. C., Napier, J. L., & Brescoll, V. (2016). A bed of thorns: Female leaders and the self-reinforcing cycle of illegitimacy. Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 400-414. 10.1016/j.leaqua.2015.12.004. PDF.

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