Female Leaders: Injurious or Inspiring Role Models for Women?

High-level female role models, whose success seems unattainable, negatively affects younger women’s self-perceptions and leadership aspirations; however, mid-level female role models do not.


To help level the playing field of women and men in positions of leadership, it may seem intuitive to place female leaders as role models for younger women to aspire to. Presumably, seeing women in positions of power can counteract negative stereotypes and encourage greater equality between the sexes. However, past research has shown that if role models are too successful, their level of success may seem unattainable and cause others to devalue their own worth by comparison. In this study, researchers examined the impact of female role models on women's self-perceptions of adequacy during a leadership task and on their leadership aspirations. Specifically, the study tested the hypothesis that females exposed to highly successful female leaders, relative to exposure to highly successful male leaders and moderately successful female leaders, would have a negative impact on women's self-perceptions and leadership aspirations.


Exposing female undergraduates to highly successful female leaders resulted in the students exhibiting lower self-perception and lower leadership aspirations. This result appears to be driven by participants’ feelings of inferiority with respect to the high-level female role model.

  • Undergraduate women presented with profiles of high-level (HL) female leaders before completing a leadership task thought that their performance was worse,  considered the task more difficult, and reported greater feelings of inferiority, relative to participants exposed to HL male leader profiles or pictures of flowers (control condition).
  • Participants who were exposed to the HL female role models also reported lower levels of leadership aspiration relative to those exposed to HL male leaders and to those in the control condition. On a scale, ranging from -3 (strongly disagree) to 3 (strongly agree), to positive statements about their leadership aspirations, those in the HL female group had an mean score 0.21, whereas the HL male group had a mean score of 1.27 and the control group a mean score of 1.14.
  • Undergraduate women who were in a group shown the profiles of mid-level (ML) female leaders before the leadership task demonstrated less stereotypical thinking relative to participants in other groups. In a task that asked all participants to choose pronouns for stereotypically male or female occupations, those in the ML female condition almost doubled the proportion of counter-stereotypical pronouns used relative to the proportions of other groups.
  • However, perceptions about performance and aspirations by participants in the ML female condition were not significantly different to those from participants in the HL male condition. This might suggest that the ML female role models are not necessarily more successful at creating positive effects than male role models.  

In short, being exposed to highly successful female role models had counterintuitive effects on undergraduate women's responses to leadership situations. Less successful role models were inspiring to the extent that individuals identified with them, considered their success as attainable, and they successfully disconfirmed gender-stereotypical beliefs. To close the gender gap in positions of leadership, the authors suggest developing strategies to help women relate to elite role models and perceive their success as being attainable.


The study was conducted at a small U.S. East Coast liberal arts university with 117 female undergraduates participating in two studies. In the first experiment, 60 participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 role-model conditions (high-level female leaders, high-level male leaders, combined high-level female and male leaders) or a control condition (flowers). The participants were presented with pictures and descriptions of their assigned condition (leaders or flowers), and then asked to complete a leadership task in an immersive virtual environment (IVET), which allowed the participants to think that they were leading a three-person group. After the 3-minute task, the participants responded to questions assessing their performance on the task, difficulty of the task, and feelings of inferiority. The second experiment had 57 female students randomly assigned to the following four conditions: high-level female leaders, high-level male leaders, mid-level female leaders, and the control group (flowers). This time, after presenting them with pictures and descriptions of their assigned condition, the participants completed a stereotype activation measure before finishing the leadership task. The participants were then asked about feelings of inferiority, leadership aspirations, and identification with the leaders.

Related GAP Studies