Personality characteristics of male and female executives: Distinct pathways to success?

Wille, B., Wiernik, B. M., Vergauwe, J., Vrijdags, A., & Trbovic, N.
Journal of Vocational Behavior, 106, 220–235

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 are discussed.