Why Do We Reward Men and Punish Women for Narcissism?


Narcissism is a double-edged sword: it can sometimes lead to increased confidence and the tendency to be perceived as leaderlike. But narcissism is also associated with negative characteristics, such as a lack of empathy, aggression, a tendency to selfishly exploit others and trouble maintaining positive relationships over time. Freud asserted that women were more narcissistic than men, based on his personal observation that women were more preoccupied with their physical beauty.

Butour research shows that men tend to be slightly more narcissistic than women, on average (a one-quarter of a standard deviation difference). The magnitude of this difference is comparable to the kind observed in other personality traits, such as neuroticism (women are higher) and risk-taking (men are higher).

Because narcissism is associated with leadership emergence, this raises the possibility that men’s greater narcissism is one of the reasons why men are more likely than women to obtain senior leadership roles. Women in the United States make up 51% of managers but only 17% of Fortune 500 board members, 15% of corporate executive officers and only 8% of Fortune 500 top earners. If it is discovered that the “narcissism gap” is playing a role in this discrepancy, would being more narcissistic help women to obtain these coveted leadership roles?

It is not clear this strategy would be effective. Because narcissistic behavior violates female stereotypes – but not male stereotypes – a woman could be sanctioned for asserting dominance, entitlement, or authority. In the end, the effectiveness of this approach would depend on the degree to which her peers adhered to and enforced gender stereotypes. 

Also, it appears that the overall narcissism gender difference is being driven by particular aspects of narcissism. Specifically, narcissism is composed of three different sub-dimensions: exploitative/entitlement, leadership/authority and grandiose/exhibitionism. Men tend to report higher levels of both the exploitative/entitlement and leadership/authority sub-dimensions.

The exploitative/entitlement sub-dimension is measured by how respondents answer questions such as “I find it easy to manipulate people,” whereas the leadership/authority sub-dimension taps into a motivation to lead and desire to obtain positions of power, and is measured by questions such as “I like having authority over other people.” 

At the same time, men and women did not differ in the grandiose/exhibitionism sub-dimension of narcissism, which is associated with vanity, self-absorption and a desire to be the center of attention. 

Of course, not all men are exploitative and entitled, and in fact, our results are consistent with previous findings that show within-group trait differences are generally larger than differences between genders. In other words, women and men are often more similar than different when it comes to many psychological characteristics.

As such, it is difficult to know exactly why men, on average, tend to be more narcissistic than women; the answer to this question was outside the scope of the current study. However, drawing on social role theory, we speculated that the gender difference arose because of beliefs about what is considered acceptable behavior for a man versus a woman. 

These social roles are thought to emerge in part because men and women are observed performing different behaviors. For instance, men more frequently hold upper-level management positions, which could create the assumption that they are more dominant than women. Likewise, women are historically more likely to take care of children, giving the impression that they are more nurturing than men. 

Owing to these stereotypes, women might actually face a backlash for displaying narcissistic behaviors and choose instead to suppress their leadership abilities or competitive natures. It is possible that gender stereotypes can create self-fulfilling prophecies through which society’s expectations produce behaviors that then confirm these expectations.

As social roles changed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, women pursued different professional goals. However, because large-scale research on narcissism did not begin until the 1980s, we were not able to detect a change in women’s narcissism over the past 30 years. But, in the future, if gender stereotypes diminish, making it more socially acceptable for women to display narcissistic behaviors, we might find different results 30 years from now—and more female executives in the corner office.

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