Women leaders have been hailed as better equipped than men to resolve issues connected with the global financial crisis. Yet female stereotypes, amplified by the media, still undermine women in leadership positions, according to new research funded by the ESRC.

While media coverage of women leaders during the financial crisis has promoted a greater acceptability of 'feminine qualities', it is not enough to challenge the association of masculinity with leadership, according to the study, which was jointly authored by Professor Carole Elliott from the University of Roehampton and Dr Valerie Stead of Lancaster University Management School.

"Women are portrayed as embodying a different way of leading," says Professor Elliott. "They are seen as more ethical, cautious and collaborative than their male counterparts. The problem is that, traditionally, these traits are considered to be unsuited to leadership."

The study argues that the media have a contradictory approach to women leaders. Advantages attributed to women such as a tendency to be risk-averse are also described as disadvantageous – if women are risk-averse they cannot fulfil the leadership ideal of being a risk-taker. Similarly, while women may be seen as being successful in adopting masculine leadership characteristics, they are often portrayed as being unable to maintain them. 

Since the financial crisis has been blamed on hubristic male leaders, the profile of women leaders has undoubtedly risen. Yet, while the media celebrate these women, they tend to focus on their female characteristics, photographing them in glamorous clothing and highlighting their looks and 'feminine' qualities. They also perpetuate gendered stereotypes, using emotional descriptors, such as 'feisty' or 'Iron Lady', the nickname attributed to Margaret Thatcher. 

The study shows that this focus reduces the complex interactions involved in leadership to binary oppositions – male/female, masculine/feminine. Women leaders themselves can be complicit in this distortion by exploiting their 'womanliness' to gain press coverage.

Images often add a particular element of contradiction, according to the research. An article celebrating a woman's leadership qualities can be undermined by a glamour photograph portraying her in conventional female poses. Images can also imperceptibly diminish the authority of a female leader by her position relative to other figures in the picture.

"The media is a powerful player in the promotion or otherwise of gender equality worldwide and media representations of women have great impact on how women are viewed and view themselves," says Professor Elliott.  

"A continued media focus on women's gender, not competence, ignores women's achievements as leaders and professionals, misrepresenting their ability, contribution and advancement. These misrepresentations undermine gender equality and social justice and perpetuate women professionals and leaders as 'out of place', constraining their progress.

"What emerges from our research is a pattern framed by a male leadership model that narrates the promise of women leaders but subjects them to an exoticisation process, which positions them as ‘other’ to the male norm."

Professor Elliott and Dr Stead's research also has important practical implications for organisations that sometimes rely on female leadership for short term projects 'to get things done' rather than recognising and rewarding women in the long term, including promotion to senior positions.