Friday, September 23, 2011

Command and Control

I'm discussing three leadership options for women.  In the last post, I described a leader who exhibits traditionally female qualities (nurturing, cooperative): Leading from the Heart.  In this post, I will consider a leader who has for the most part adopted (or naturally has) masculine characteristics congruent with strong leadership (assertive, competitive, aggressive, etc.): Command and Control. 

I know several women, both in academic and non-academic settings, who favor this style.  Although they are successful in the science profession and may be strong leaders, they are not always viewed in a completely positive light.  Some of them seem to have difficulties gaining the respect of subordinates, peers, and/or superiors.  According to experts, the problem may lie in the inconsistency between gender role expectations and leadership expectations.  A woman who is assertive and outspoken may be seen as presumptuous and over-confident.  If she has mostly discarded all feminine features, she is especially criticized for having violated her gender role and is seen as a flawed person, regardless of how successful she is professionally.  Although this probably explains some of the reactions to such women, I'm not so sure this is the whole story.

I’ve particularly intrigued as to why such women are frequently challenged (or disrespected) by subordinates (male and female).  I don’t have enough in-depth information to be certain, but I can speculate about some possibilities. I suspect that a woman who is assertive, aggressive, and competitive, but whose work is not of the highest quality (evidenced, for example, by publishing in low-tier journals or not bringing in large grants) would be viewed as having an over-inflated ego.  The same might be true of a young female who has not yet established a strong professional status, but behaves as if she has.  The fact that she is acting in a contra-gender fashion might add further to the negative perception.  (A man, by contrast, might not be downgraded as much for having an over-inflated ego).
In decision-making, a leader may behave democratically and allow subordinates to express opinions or make decisions autocratically and discourage any input from subordinates.  If a woman is highly regarded by peers and successful, then behaving autocratically would seem to be justified (to a degree, but not as much as for a male).  On the other hand, a woman who is perceived as having a too-high opinion of herself would have special difficulties with subordinates.  If she’s not that successful and also ignores her subordinates’ input by being autocratic, then she will likely not be seen as a capable leader.  Eventually, her demands are seen as irritating and repressive, and subordinates begin to rebel, challenging her decisions... at first behind her back, then face-to-face.
An autocratic approach could also sully interactions with peers--other scientists.  In joint projects as PI, she might insist on making all the decisions and not invite co-PIs to participate (or veto their opinions, if they do not coincide with hers).  You can imagine how well this would go over with her colleagues. I've seen this situation on several occasions involving lead PIs who were female.  They treat co-PIs the same way they treat their staff:  assigning tasks, monitoring their work, and excluding them from the decision-making process even though they may have co-designed the project and are responsible for a major aspect of it.  I suspect that such women either think this behavior is expected of them as a leader or they are over-compensating for low self-esteem.

In any case, adopting the Command and Control style of leadership can be problematic for a woman, especially in interactions with colleagues.  Perhaps a senior woman who has reached the top of her profession might successfully implement this style of leadership, but I would expect that even she would experience some resistance. 

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