Female leaders often end up in a quandary

RSM-onderzoeker Sofya Isaakyan

Researcher Sofya Isaakyan (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University) is one of six young scientists at Erasmus University Rotterdam who received a Veni grant. In her project ‘Turning a challenge into a strength: Examining how female leaders can effectively manage employee voice’ she explores the stigmas and dilemmas female leaders face and comes up with practical interventions.

Can you explain the title of your research?

“One of my main research areas is employee voice behavior. This is when employees speak up with constructive ideas or concerns with the intent to initiate a positive change, for example by challenging existing practices within an organization. How leaders respond to voice and the implications for employees and for the idea itself have been studied, but nobody looked at the implications for leaders when they respond to voice. Voice already represents a particular challenge for leaders. Employees might point out things that you overlooked as a leader or indirectly question your actions and judgements. With this project, I argue that, on top of this challenge, female leaders may also face the double bind phenomenon when responding to voice.”

The ‘double bind’? Can you explain?

“The literature shows that when female leaders are showing empathy or consideration, which is in line with their female gender role, they are being punished as it is not matching dominant traits associated with the leader role. At the same time, if they act dominant, they are also being punished for violating communal expectations associated with their female gender role.”

"If a female leader accepts an idea and endorses it, that could show a lack of autonomy and question their leader capacity in the eyes of others"

So women can’t do it right?

“Exactly. Simply put the double bind means you are punished as a female leader if you are being nice and also when you are being dominant. When reacting to employee voice, the double bind implies that female leaders are left with no good options. If a female leader accepts an idea and endorses it, that could show a lack of autonomy and question their leader capacity in the eyes of others. And if a female leader rejects her employee’s input, others may question her consideration.”

What is the contribution of your research? 

“Prior research has mostly discussed the behaviors that trigger the double bind in more general terms, and there is little research that outlines specific behaviours which lead to it. With this project, I want to explore this. Importantly, I will look both at how others perceive leaders when they react to employee voice and also how leaders view themselves as I expect that it can trigger an identity conflict for female leaders between their gender and leader role. The purpose of this study is not just to get a better understanding about this phenomenon, but to also provide solutions. I plan to develop interventions that outline ways for women to deal with both; so what they can do to not trigger this double bind and how they can stay out of the identity conflict when responding to voice?”

studenten in werkgroep docent
Alexander Santos Lima

What type of interventions?

“For example, one of the interventions will focus on increasing perceived procedural fairness of voice endorsement and rejection. It will provide guidance to female leaders on how to communicate with the employee to display respect towards them and on what to communicate in order to sufficiently inform the employee about how to raise voice in the future to have a bigger impact. Importantly, I will include both female and male leaders in these studies. I expect that the negative implications of reaction to voice for female leaders are higher due to the double bind phenomenon, but at the same time that the interventions are more effective for them.”

How come?

“Women are still facing gender-related obstacles and biased evaluations. Female employees and leaders often have much more ambiguous beliefs about their leader identity because of the discouraging societal discourse. People still often question their capacity to lead effectively. This is very discouraging, but fellow scholars pointed out that if you have a higher representation of women in higher positions this bias is reduced.”

"I was joking with my colleagues that now I know how it feels to get an Oscar"

Does that mean you are in favor of quota?

“That is a very complicated discussion. With my research I am not addressing the issue of introducing quota but I provide specific solutions about how female leaders can effectively manage their employees voice in such a way that it does not trigger biased evaluations. I am planning to develop a one-day workshop on managing employee voice. This workshop will also outline specific HR practices on creating a more inclusive environment. I hope we can start a change from there.”

Did the award come as a big surprise?

“I had little confidence when I applied as I knew how competitive Veni is, but my level of confidence grew on the way when I received quite positive comments from the reviewers. I was more surprised by the response at the moment it was public. Everybody seemed to know about it and even people from other universities started congratulating me, which was very nice. I was joking with my colleagues that now I know how it feels to get an Oscar.”

dr. Sofya Isaakyan
More information

Check all international, national and university awards of our university.

See how Erasmus University Rotterdam deals with Diversity & Inclusion.

Related content
Six researchers from Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and Erasmus MC have been awarded a Veni grant by the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).
Veni winnaars

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes