A bed of thorns: Female leaders and the self-reinforcing cycle of illegitimacy

Andrea C. Vial, Jaime L. Napier, Victoria L. Brescoll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In an attempt to explain why the gender gap in leadership positions persists, we propose a model centered on legitimacy. When women hold powerful positions, they have a harder time than men eliciting respect and admiration (i.e., status) from subordinates. As a result, female power-holders are seen as less legitimate than male power-holders. Unless they are able to legitimize their role, relative illegitimacy will prompt a variety of consequences such as more negative subordinate behavior and reduced cooperation when the leader is a woman. Subordinate rejection will likely put female leaders in a precarious mindset, and trigger negative responses toward subordinates; such behavior can confirm negative expectations of female leaders and further undermine female authority in a self-reinforcing cycle of illegitimacy. Leader or organizational features that enhance status attributions and/or lower subordinates' perceptions of power differentials may increase legitimacy for women in leadership roles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)400-414
Number of pages15
JournalLeadership Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Gender
  • Leadership
  • Legitimacy
  • Power
  • Status

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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