It's hard enough for women to scale the heights in business, but even when they do they are faced with a range of "double-bind" contradictions that make it almost impossible for them to be truly successful.
However women choose to lead an organisation Ė hard as nails or "soft" and feminine Ė they are doomed to be castigated by their (predominantly male) colleagues and rivals, new American research has suggested.
Three key "damned if you, damned if you don't" contradictions for women leaders have been identified by U.S. research and advisory organisation Catalyst.
The first of these is what it classes as "extreme perceptions". If women business leaders act consistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered too soft. But if they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough.
Second, women leaders more often than not face higher standards than male leaders and are rewarded with less.
Often, therefore, they must work doubly hard to achieve the same level of recognition as male leaders for the same level of work to "prove" they can lead.
Third, when women exhibit traditionally valued leadership behaviours such as assertiveness, they tend to be seen as competent but not personable or well-liked.
Yet when they adopt a more stereotypically feminine style they are liked but not seen as having valued leadership skills.
The research follows on from a study by the consultancy back in 2005 that argued senior executives' perceptions of men and women were more informed by gender-based stereotypes than facts.
This in turn led to misrepresentation of the true talents of women and contributing to the continuing gender gap in business leadership.
But the latest research, which polled 1,231 people (296 U.S senior managers and corporate leaders and 935 in Europe) also suggested businesses could overcome these inherent contradictions around gender stereotyping through organisational solutions.
The organisation's census of women leaders found the gender gap in the U.S more than alive and well.
Even though women make up over half of management, professional, and related occupations, just 15.6 per cent of Fortune 500 corporate officers and 14.6 per cent of Fortune 500 board directors were women.
"When companies fail to acknowledge and address the impact of gender stereotypic bias, they lose out on top female talent," pointed out Catalyst president Ilene H. Lang.
"Ultimately, it's not women's leadership styles that need to change. Only when organisations take action to address the impact of gender stereotyping will they be able to capitalise on the 'full deck' of talent," she added.
Although research has long shown that men and women exhibit similar leadership styles, men do not face the persistent gender stereotyping that frequently places women business leaders in "no-win" dilemmas, said Catalyst.
The study, which interviewed senior business executives from both the U.S and Europe, found that men were still viewed as "default leaders" and women as "atypical leaders", with the perception that they violate accepted norms of leadership, no matter what the leadership behaviour.
Thus the masculine leadership norm created the three connected, but distinct "double-bind dilemmas" for women leaders today, it added.
As one of the (male) contributors to the research said: "My observations show senior women to be at either end of the spectrum, drivers that do it themselves (even though they might have given it to someone).
"This type tends to give little recognition and is a perfectionist. The others are very effective delegators, giving lots of recognition and building loyal teams, but can be perceived as 'not tough enough'."
Similarly, a European female, high-potential manager commented: "Men and women are seen differently, and the difference in my experience and observation is that we (women) need to show it more times before they believe it. With a woman, they will want to see the behaviour repeated more frequently before they will say that this is really part of the women (sic) and her capabilities."
And a U.S female manager added: "It may just be that people are more sensitive to how women behave in that regard. There does seem to be a little more tolerance for harsh behaviour from men rather than women. Women are quicker to get labeled, and with men, it's easier to brush it off..."
Finally, a Spanish male middle manager explained: "I have experienced in the past that women can be distrusted in leadership roles, especially when they use a dominant style of communication. On the contrary, if they use a collaborative style serving their organisation and empowering people, they get more recognition and sincere appreciation from their male equals."
The Catalyst study argued that organisations needed to develop and promote change to rid the work environment of the damaging impact of gender stereotyping and take advantage of the expanding pool of female leadership talent.
"While women may address double-bind dilemmas with individual strategies," explained Lang, "this is clearly about organisations shifting their norms and culture to meet marketplace demands".
Simply learning about how stereotypes operated and holding individuals accountable could decrease the negative effects of gender stereotypic bias.
Similarly, providing women leaders and other employees with tools and resources to increase awareness of women leaders' skills could help, as did assessing the work environment to identify in what ways women are at risk of stereotypic bias.
Better managerial training and diversity education and more effective performance and evaluation management could also be effective, it added.