The gender gap in European business leadership is being perpetuated by managers who are clinging onto stereotypical perceptions about men's and women's leadership abilities regardless of their actual aptitude and performance.
That's the argument put forward in a new report by Catalyst, a U.S-based non-profit organisation that works to expand opportunities for women and business.
"Different Cultures, Similar Perceptions: Stereotyping of Western European Business Leaders" examined the attitudes of almost 1,000 alumni of the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland and found that gender-based stereotyping is undermining women's capacity to lead and posing serious challenges to women's career advancement.
Despite a raft of evidence suggesting that gender is not a good predictor of leadership performance and that the leadership traits of men and women are similar, the Catalyst study found that across cultures, managers consistently perceived differences in leadership behaviour and effectiveness of women and men.
Data analysis from four different 'cultural clusters' in Western Europe - Nordic, Anglo, Germanic and Latin - revealed a striking consensus around the stereotypical beliefs that women are better at "taking care" and men are better at "taking charge".
The finding mirrors the work carried out last year by Catalyst in the U.S. which revealed that both sexes perceived women as being better at stereotypically feminine caretaking skills and men more adept at stereotypically male taking charge skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.
But despite the prevalence of stereotyping in general, the study exposed some significant differences in the nature and prevalence of stereotypic perceptions across cultural clusters.
Paradoxically, the report found that these stereotypic perceptions were actually most widespread in Nordic cultures – despite their high levels of women's representation and emphasis on gender equality.
Another finding of the report is that stereotyping can have a different impact on women depending on which leadership behaviours their cultures value most.
For example, while a large majority of managers across Western Europe believe that an ability to inspire others is an important leadership attribute, Anglo men are the only group to view women as ineffective in this area.
This could be especially damaging for Anglo women given that inspiring others was the leadership behaviour respondents in the Anglo cluster valued most.
Similarly, Nordic men perceived women as relatively ineffective at delegating, a behaviour that was top-ranked by over three-quarters of Nordic respondents.
This could have significant implications for Nordic women because if they are perceived as not as effective as men at delegating, they might not be given opportunities to advance.
But other stereotypic perceptions about leadership behaviours that were seen as less important - especially those where managers perceived the largest differences between women's and men's abilities - can also have significant spillover effects.
Anglo, Germanic, Latin, and Nordic managers perceived the largest differences between women and men at supporting others, problem-solving, and influencing upward.
If a woman is judged effective at supporting, the report argues, she is more likely to be judged effective at team-building.
Conversely, women's reputations at problem-solving could have an adverse effect on their perceived effectiveness at inspiring others - the most highly valued leadership behaviour.
One lesson to be drawn from the findings is that global companies need to be particularly aware of these regional differences in valued leadership behaviours as they transfer their executives in and out of these cultures.
More broadly, however, the report urged organisations to put in place concrete measures to curb stereotypic biases – such as expose employees to advocates for women leaders, engaging men as advocates for women in leadership and defining gender equality in measurable terms.
"This study confirmed that stereotyping knows no borders," said Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst President.
"Stereotyping clearly undermines and undervalues women's leadership capabilities. In this increasingly competitive global marketplace where companies must fully leverage all talent, they cannot do so if stereotyping of women prevails."