British business type Chris Golis reckons women have a “genetic” unsuitability for leadership. In response to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s call for greater female participation in the boardroom, Golis proffered his opinion on how one “become[s] a leader in a large organisation”. A key factor, he argued, was having a politician-type temperament akin to paranoia: men are twice as likely to be paranoid than women, Golis claimed, meaning “you would expect twice as many men to become leaders as females”.

Given such “natural” differences, he concluded, women must accept that “a truly equal world” would be one where women ran only “a third of our countries and companies”.

Luckily, Golis isn’t relying on a firm grasp of reason or evidence to launch his new career. On both counts, his counter to Sandberg falls down. His hypothesis is crippled by the naturalistic fallacy (the confusion of what is with what ought to be), the absence of data to support most of his assertions and the erroneous nature of the few bits of evidence he does offer.

On the latter point, Golis’ claim that significant gender-based differences in paranoia are incorrect. A 2011 examination of personality disorders in over 18,366 British managers across a 10-year period found that while there are significant gender differences in personality disorders, the smallest ones were for paranoia, and these were negligible (4.51 women verses 4.59 men). In any event, only 3% of business leaders have any mental disorder, making Golis’ claim that paranoia explains women’s under-representation as leaders highly implausible.

As well, the Humm-Wadsworth model of temperament on which Golis relies was overtaken in the academic literature in the 1960s by numerous more sophisticated tests and models of personality traits. Then there’s the inconvenient fact that meta-analyses of organisational studies — those that compare the actual behaviour of men and women in equivalent leadership roles — have found that gender has no predictive impact on managerial styles.

I could go on, but perhaps a more interesting tack is, given the shortfalls in Golis’s argument, to ask why respond at all? Men have been making arguments that women are innately ill-suited to education, exercising the vote and leadership for hundreds of years. All that’s changed in that time is the mountain of evidence to show they’re wrong (hands up anyone with a womb shrivelled by education!) Why give oxygen to the mental meanderings of a sexist past his prime?

The reason is that, sadly, what men like Golis say matters. Humans are social animals. Our ideas about who we are and what we are capable of are reliant on what others feed back to us about these things. Even where our conscious mind rejects Golis’ contention that women’s hard-wiring makes most of us “naturally” unfit to lead — and those who are fit deviants — the less conscious parts of our mind are disturbed. Some sort of a fight-back must be staged if our confidence is to be maintained and with it, our attempts to lead.

A few studies suggest how this works. One gave a group of female maths-types an article from Science that said men did better in standardised tests because of their naturally superior spatial abilities. While the control group was happy to identify with feminine characteristics on a survey, those who read the Science piece were not. In a bid to relieve the “stereotype threat” provoked by their own attempts to be “female math-types”, they sought distance from the “female” part of the equation.

“Does the negative effect of stereotype on women’s actual and self-rated performance shape their career choices? The simple answer is, yes.”

Other women manage stereotype threat by leaving the “math-type” part of the equation behind. A New York study found that when female students were told prior to a calculus test that there were no gender differences in performance, they not only performed better than women who weren’t told this, but far better than the men. Where this reassurance wasn’t offered, men and women did the same. A French study found that if female students were asked to rate the truth of gender stereotypes about girls and math before being asked about their own abilities, they remembered doing better in arts and worse in math then was actually the case.

Does the negative effect of stereotype on women’s actual and self-rated performance shape their career choices? The simple answer is, yes. When boys or girls were asked to rate their performance on a national standardised test, boys rated their ability higher than girls — who had performed exactly the same — evaluated theirs. This superior self-rating was the key reason boys went on to embrace a maths, science or engineering-type career while girls, who did just as well, walked away.

There is a bright side to all this. In the same way that our self-perception, confidence and commitment to living in ways that run counter to our society’s rules about gender, our self-belief and determination can be bolstered by positive messages and examples.

A 2004 study found that if women read biographies of accomplished female leaders before doing an associative test they were more easily able to associate females — including themselves — with stereotypically male leadership qualities. The real-world value of this finding was shown when the same researchers discovered that female students at a single-sex university were less likely to buy in, consciously and automatically, to stereotypes about women’s unsuitability for leadership, while women who encountered a mostly male faculty at a co-ed institution were more likely to embrace them.

We are drowning in data that reveals the complexity of the women and leadership story in western countries like Australia. Key to this complexity is that for women to lead, they must believe they can lead. This belief is in turn bolstered by examples of women in leadership roles and the confidence of others in their ability to lead. Sandberg isn’t just talking about women in leadership but making female leaders possible by her visibility in a high-profile leadership role.

In contrast, men like Colis are doing more than describing a fictitious world in which gender is fixed, immutable and advantageous to the leadership ambitions of men. In addition, by undermining women’s confidence in themselves, they are creating a world in which less women will be able to lead and be believed capable of ever doing so.

*Dr Leslie Cannold is an author and academic at the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability at Monash University. This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda.