Women and Leadership: Assertion and Perception

In this era of #metoo and #equalpay, it’s becoming evident that gender might play a role in our perception of leaders and leadership.

Business woman walking with a purse

Unequal pay and gender disparity in leadership positions frequently captures headlines—and gender equity truly is an enormous problem within the workplace. However, pay and title aren’t the only issues under the microscope. Workplace communication has revealed itself to be a bigger factor in professional development than we could have expected.

That’s where Elizabeth McClean comes in. As an assistant professor of management and organizations within the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, her research is changing the way we think about communication and its impact on gender equity in the workforce. Like so many other professors in Eller’s MBA program, McClean’s forward-thinking research is enriching the classroom experience.

Gender Inequality Via Communication in the Workforce

Elizabeth McClean

Elizabeth McClean, assistant professor of management and organizations

McClean’s latest research revolves around the way professionals communicate in the workplace. Her goal was to uncover the differences between promotive and prohibitivelanguage—language that presents helpful ideas for the future and language that points out problems without offering solutions, respectively. While aiming to determine communication’s impact on an individual’s perceived leadership ability among their peers, she found there are major differences in how we expect men and women to communicate.

McClean’s study enlisted the help of 196 working adults, with 55 percent holding college degrees and 38 percent identifying as women. Participants listened to voices on a conference call discussing a recent workplace problem. There were four tracks: a male using promotive speech, a female using promotive speech, a male using prohibitive speech and a female using prohibitive speech. McClean and her co-authors ensured the scripts for both promotive speeches and both prohibitive speeches were identical, and they even controlled for variables like tone and speed.

What she found was a large gender-based disparity between the impact language has on the way we perceive individuals and their leadership potential. Her study concluded that men who use promotive speech are viewed as better leaders, and earn more respect from their peers, than those who used prohibitive speech.

For women, however, she found no benefit—regardless of the type of speech used. Not only was there little difference in the way women were perceived when using promotive and prohibitive speech, neither language style benefited their position as a leader or gained them additional respect. Regardless of what they said and how they said it, they didn’t reap the same benefits as their male counterparts.

McClean then tested this in the field at the United States Military Academy’s Sandhurst Military Skills Competition, where leadership is highly valued. The test was conducted among 187 cadets split into teams, with each team containing up to three women. After the competition, it was found there were no leadership gains for female cadets who actively used promotive speech throughout the competition.

Again, it all comes back to our expectations for each gender. “We expect women to be communal and nice,” McClean explains. “Men should be more assertive and change-oriented. People are relying on these expectations, and that creates the difference in how we evaluate ideas.”

McClean’s Classroom Impact Across Genders and Workplace Experience

For MBA candidates at Eller College of Management, research like this is extremely valuable for guiding professional behavior in the workplace. This value is inherent regardless of the MBA candidate’s gender or current workforce experience.

For future male professionals who want to advance quickly, McClean’s research is a simple communication roadmap: consciously use promotive speech at every opportunity.

For current male managers and professionals, McClean’s research explains how to leverage language to be perceived as a capable, dependable leader. Similarly, this research instructs how to better perceive language and talent from surrounding staffers and co-workers, as well as provide the building blocks for coaching staffers into effective future leaders.

For women, however, McClean’s research highlights an important communication-gender paradigm. “This is important,” she says, “because it helps young women understand the hurdles they’ll face in their career and when trying to attain leadership positions.” If women want to secure additional respect and higher leadership positions, they’ll need to do more than watch their speaking techniques—a topic McClean wants to tackle next.

Ongoing Research Efforts Across the Eller College of Management

McClean’s latest research leaves one question: If women can’t improve their status through promotive or prohibitive speech as men can, what can they do instead?

This has prompted McClean to begin a first-of-its-kind study focusing on amplification— championing women’s opinions in the workplace by echoing them and giving credit to the original speaker. Her hypothesis is that we can work together to elevate women in the workplace if we are supportive as a community instead of competing against each other individually.

She isn’t the only researcher at Eller exploring gender and communication in the workplace. Assistant Management and Organizations Department Head Aleksander Ellis recently published research covering the differences between the genders in their reactions to negative feedback. Associate Professor of Management and Organizations Allison Gabriel, meanwhile, is studying instability in the workplace, including the way women treat other women.

With continued research on the genders and communication, Eller-based researchers may one day help reduce the current gender disparities in the workforce.

Watch the Webinar

Interested in learning more and taking action? In this webinar, Elizabeth McClean leads you through her research on what happens when women speak up in the workplace and offers some behaviors that both women and men can adopt to support women at work.

The Value of an Eller MBA

As a research institution, the Eller College of Management offers a rich classroom environment. That’s because professors like McClean must keep up with the latest developments, statistics and trends in their respective fields in order to conduct meaningful research. This continuous education quickly finds its way into the classroom—sometimes even within 24 hours. As a result, Eller MBA candidates are also up-to-date on the latest developments, molding them into prime job candidates upon graduation.

Explore Eller MBA Programs

Elizabeth McClean joined the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in 2014 after earning a PhD from Cornell University. Her areas of expertise are leadership, strategic human resource management, teams and employee voice. She has published research on speaking up in the workplace, employee turnover, human resources practices and employee performance in the top journals in her field, including the Academy of Management Journal and Human Resource Management, among others.