Gender And Leadership 152
Photo by: George Dolgikh

Gender and leadership is a subject that is concerned with two main questions: (1) What are the determinants of male/female differences in who assumes leadership positions and in leadership behavior? and (2) How is leadership a gendered concept?

Social scientists distinguish between "gender" and "sex." Sex refers to the basic, biologically given physiological differences between males and females. Gender refers to a culture's social construction of differences between the sexes. These include the different traits, roles, behaviors, attitudes, and aptitudes males and females are expected to display. Gender displays reinforce claims of membership in a sex. Expressions such as "gendered practices," "gendered language," and "gendered jobs" are used to emphasize the tenet that gender involves a process of social construction, and to make gender a more central explanation of organizational behavior phenomena such as leadership.

The term "leaders" refers to persons holding formal positions of leadership in complex organizations in industry, government, education, politics, the arts, sciences, and professions. Historically, gender precluded most females from becoming leaders in such organizations; as a result, the assumption that males were better suited than females for leadership roles was, until recently, rarely questioned. Since the early 1970s, the foundation of that assumption has been shaken by the large number of women who, according to Bass and Stogdill's Handbook of Leadership, have (1) been elected prime minister (in Britain, Canada, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Norway, Sri Lanka, etc.) and to other high government offices; (2) been elevated to managerial positions in business organizations; and (3) earned master of business administration (MBA) degrees. In addition, the assumption that leaders are to be men has come under scrutiny by a growing body of scholarly writing on the subject of gender and leadership.

Interest in gender and leadership started in the United States in the early 1970s, when women slowly began to seek and gain entry into management. Two types of literature sought to aid women's advancement. Practical, "how to" advice books warned that the predominantly male corporate world was, for women, akin to foreign, hostile, enemy territory: to be successful, women needed to learn and adapt themselves to the local language, dress, and customs. This theme is reflected in titles such as The Managerial Woman: The Survival Manual for Women in Business, by Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim; Games Mother Never Taught You, by Betty L. Harragan; and Making It in Management: A Behavioral Approach for Women Executives, by Margaret Fenn.

The other body of literature—more academic in its content and research—provided the rationale for eliminating barriers (such as discriminatory policies) to women's progress in organizations and management. It argued that differences between women's and men's ability to carry out responsible jobs are minimal, once women attain the appropriate job qualifications. Women, thus, deserved equal opportunity in early childhood as well as higher education, and equal access to all types of job training and development. Women would then be able to compete with men for leadership positions and other jobs.

Other books and articles in the 1970s assailed society's loss of talent from the large pool of motivated females prohibited from many jobs simply because of their sex. These "human capital" theorists argued that such a gross underutilization of resources was wasteful, irrational, and disadvantageous to a firm's profitability and competitiveness. Both the equal opportunity and human capital arguments are based on the assumption that when a woman's advancement in a career is based on merit alone, she will be able to excel and advance into management and leadership positions if she desires.

The human capital theory presaged an argument that emerged in the mid-1980s: that a company's profits could be bolstered by the special qualities women possess—a proclivity for cooperative decision making, ability to share power and communicate well, experience in nurturing the development of others, and comfort with less hierarchical organizations. Increased foreign competition made U.S. companies aware of the failings of the traditional, military, authoritarian leadership style, and thus the utilization of female talent was seen as a possible source of competitive advantage. This theme is reflected in the titles of books and articles such as The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership, by Sally Helgesen; "Women as Managers: What They Can Offer to Organizations," by Jan Grant; and Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business without Being One of the Boys, by Marilyn Loden.

At the same time the idea that females possess a natural leadership advantage over males gained popularity in both academic and management circles, some scholars voiced a more critical view. They maintained that the idea of extracting the value of feminine skills and qualities in the global marketplace was exploitative. Such a plan is part of a managerial ideology that dehumanizes and subordinates all workers, not females only. These writers were less concerned with the relationship between gender and leadership per se. Their primary interest was the issue of power, and how the gender categories "male" and "female" are part of a system of power relations that empowers some and exploits others.


Why are there differences between males and females in who becomes a leader? This is one main question of concern to writers in the area of gender and leadership. Though the situation has improved recently for women in the United States and other western countries, throughout human history women have not traditionally been found as leaders, outside the family, in complex organizations—those corporations, legislatures, universities, and financial institutions that greatly influence society.

Several reasons are cited for the low proportion of women leaders. One is that females' life aspirations are diminished by their early childhood socialization in the nuclear family. Generally the nuclear family transmits definitions of appropriate gender behavior to children. For girls, this includes submissiveness, passivity, avoidance of aggression and competition, reticence to take risk, and other qualities our culture considers "feminine." Research shows that even when high school boys and girls have the same college and career aspirations, the boys receive significantly more parental encouragement to pursue their goals.

One result of this childhood socialization is the tendency for adult women to be stereotyped as less well-suited than men for leadership roles. Several studies have shown that people perceive successful managers to have the characteristics typically associated with men, though the actual qualities successful managers possess are a combination of masculine (e.g., forcefulness, self-confidence, task orientation, initiative) and feminine (e.g., concern for people, feelings, and relationships) traits. An obvious consequence of this is that a man is more likely to be selected for a leadership position than is a woman of equal qualification. Thus, a woman who aspires to leadership positions must overcome both her childhood socialization, which discouraged development of some essential qualities, and a popular perception of the maleness of leadership—both of which tangibly reduce the chance she will be judged qualified. In addition to socialization and stereotyping, other barriers to females' upward mobility into leadership positions include: (a) discrimination against them in personnel decisions involving promotion, selection, and supervision; (b) a dearth of women and men willing to mentor women; (c) management development opportunities that are based on job rotation: geographic mobility can create difficulties for a woman's children and destroy her spouse's career; (d) coincidence of the biological clock and some professions' "up or out" policies, such as professors' tenure clock and lawyers' partner clock; and (e) the perception of women as "outsiders" because of their physical differences, stereotyping, and exclusion from some social clubs and activities where important networks are built and maintained.

Other reasons women ascend to leadership positions less frequently than men are that women most frequently inhabit managerial positions with little power, little advancement opportunity, or where other women are so rare that their presence is attributed to their sexuality or affirmative action, or it is used as a symbol of the organization's enlightenment. Outside their paid jobs, women usually have significant responsibility for the care of their families and home, thereby depleting the energy they might otherwise devote to the pursuit of leadership positions of consequence.


Though females' early socialization and other obstacles may impede them from becoming leaders, those who do ascend do not behave significantly differently from men in the same kinds of positions. Some studies have been able to discern differences in leadership style and managerial behavior, but most have not.

Studies have examined male/female differences in three main types of managerial behavior. The first is task accomplishment style, which is how much the leader initiates, organizes, and defines work activities and processes. The second is interpersonal style, which is how much the leader builds morale, relationships, satisfaction, and commitment in the organization. The third is decision-making style, which is how much the leader encourages a participative, democratic approach as opposed to an autocratic approach.

Some studies find differences between males' and females' task accomplishment styles and interpersonal styles. Males tended to be more task-oriented; females tended to be more relationship-oriented. These differences, however, have been observed only in men and women subjects of laboratory experiments, that is, people asked to speculate how they would behave if they were leaders. Differences disappear in studies where actual managers are compared: most conclude that women do not behave differently from men in the same or similar kind of leadership position. Moreover, experienced women managers show no differences in leadership abilities from experienced male managers. These women, in fact, are likely to more closely resemble their male counterparts in drive, skills, temperament, and competitiveness, than the average woman in the population.

Some difference has been found in males' and females' decision making styles. According to Gary N. Powell's comprehensive study, Women and Men in Management, women tend to employ a more democratic, participative style while men tend to take a more autocratic, directive approach. This difference has appeared in both laboratory studies and observations of real leaders. Some scholars thus argue that women's tendency to negotiate, mediate, facilitate, and communicate is the more effective leadership style than men's emphasis on power and control; and because this "feminine" style reduces hierarchy, satisfies subordinates, and achieves results, it should be the norm to which men are compared. There is some evidence that this is occurring: most mainstream writers now urge managers to adopt a caring, cooperative, collaborative, nurturing, connective, servant leadership style.

During the late 1990s medical science found a physical basis for some of these basic differences in leadership qualities. As asserted by Dorion Sagan in "Gender Specifics: Why Women Aren't Men," the structure of the female brain affords women several biological and cognitive advantages. This was thought to be in large part due to the connector between the two sides of the brain being larger in women than in men, resulting in a better ability on the female's part to integrate left brain/right brain activities. Women were thought better able to follow several trains of thought at the same time, while men appeared better able to focus on single topics.


The other main question of concern to writers in the area of gender and leadership is whether "leadership position" is implicitly a gendered concept. To answer this question, first one has to understand how organizations, including their leadership positions, are one place where gender is produced. In her article "Gendering Organizational Theory," Joan Acker argues that gender is part of the logic used in organizations to determine what practices will be adopted. Organizations profess themselves to be gender-neutral, for example, with their practice of filling an abstract job with a person who possesses the requisite qualifications. But when the "job description" for a leadership position includes 12-hour days, business meetings and social events on weekends, and little time for non-job-related obligations, many women (and, increasingly, men) cannot qualify because of their family responsibilities. The ostensibly gender-neutral job, then, is not. It and the organization in which it exists are part of the gendered substructure of society. They assume and thereby replicate conventional gender roles: man working full-time for a lifetime in a job outside the home; woman working in the home to take care of him, the family, and any spillover from his job.

In this view, all social practices are structured in relation to gender. This includes the social practice of organizing businesses, schools, governments, and the like, and including leadership positions in the design of these organizations. Because social practices replicate the reproductive division of people into male and female, they are said to be "gendered." Thus, gender becomes a property of institutions and the human and historical processes that create them. It becomes a characteristic of not individual people but collectivities. To think of gender—and leadership—in this way is a considerable advance. Doing so provides an explanation for the difficulties women traditionally have experienced ascending to leadership positions and performing leader roles with comfort and ease.

SEE ALSO : Gender Discrimination ; Women in Business

[ Nanette Fondas ,

updated by Wendy H. Mason ]


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