Although there has been a widespread push for more women in senior positions, the phenomena dubbed “think manager, think man” is still commonplace. Both men and women, when asked to envision successful leaders, typically think of traditionally masculine traits such as assertiveness and competence. More female traits, like trustworthiness and kindness, are seen as less important.

While we know that women can have typically masculine traits – and vice versa – a question remains over why we hold those masculine traits in higher esteem.

Harder to climb the ladder

This bias causes problems for women who aspire to senior roles. Pre-existing expectations for leadership means we’re more likely to see men as better suited to those positions – both consciously and subconsciously. Because men display more of the qualities of a good leader – as perceived by society – they pip women to those top positions. Worse still, we can be guilty of attributing qualities and behaviours to a person, when they fit our preconceived notions of leadership, without them ever displaying such characteristics. As women don’t always display these masculine expectations, we are less likely to subconsciously view them as a good fit.

Long-lasting implications

This male bias in our cognitive processing is having long-lasting impact. Men and women in senior positions often behave in similar ways, however, males routinely receive better leadership feedback. This is often exacerbated by the fact that women are less likely to view themselves as successful, to ask for promotions or put themselves forward for senior roles. The end result is that women are underrepresented in leadership positions, holding less than a quarter of top management roles.

A part-solution

Being mindful of this bias in promoting and recruiting for senior positions will help in part – but it won’t fully solve the problem. Indeed, some research suggests that asking hiring managers to be more objective in recruitment may actually strengthen their unconscious biases. A mixed approach is required, where organisations become more accountable for their gender gap at senior level, and individuals are educated on the “think male” dilemma. Making business leaders publicly explain gender gaps and decision-making will likely even the playing field.

Highlight successful females

Highlighting successful female leaders is another step. Especially when their success is directly attributed to ‘female’ characteristics. This will change perceptions towards a less male-centric strong leader stereotype.

Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global and the former leader of the Huffington Post. She is regularly listed as one of the world’s most powerful female leaders by Forbes. Through Thrive Global – and her book, Thrive – Huffington lauds many typically ‘female’ characteristics such as making time for wellbeing, not working yourself to the bone, sleeping well and emphasising work/life balance.

Women could be better suited to the future

It’s also worth noting that automation and other emerging technology will make soft skills such as empathy and teamwork more in-demand. Tomorrow’s successful leaders will be the ones who remain typically “human” with relationship building and creative thinking. It may be that our idea of an effective leader will skew more towards female characteristics, as automation revolutionises the workplace meaning women will gain an edge. In the future, it may not be aspiring female leaders negatively affected by bias.