Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gender and Leadership Styles

Before I delve into leadership styles for women, we first need to understand a bit about how both our gender and our workplace influence not only our choice of behavior, but whether it's effective or not.

It’s difficult to determine the impact of gender on leadership behavior, in part because of the simultaneous effect of gender roles and organizational roles.  Even though we may strive to perform in a genderless manner, we cannot escape the fact of our sex and its effect on our behavior as well as on others' expectations of us.  Men and women who achieve leadership status in an organization may behave similarly because of norms regulating the performance of tasks in that role.  A PI, for example, will prepare grant proposals, develop and carry out research, hire and supervise a staff, write and publish papers…all activities required to be successful in this role and that are essentially genderless.  However, there is always leeway in how these activities are carried out. A PI may be friendly or reclusive, ask colleagues for advice or not, be aggressive or timid, be autocratic or democratic in making decisions, work alongside staff or have distinctly separate activities.  Exactly how someone carries out various tasks may be influenced by gender, either due to their own gender-related tendencies or to organizational expectations of their performance in that position.

Characteristics relevant to leadership that are more often ascribed to men are termed agentic:  assertive, controlling, ambitious, dominant, independent, daring, self-confident, competitive.  A leader must speak and act confidently, capture and hold the attention of others, generate a viable plan of action (and vision), and motivate subordinates to carry out tasks.  In contrast, characteristics more often associated with women are communal in nature: sensitive, sympathetic, kind, warm, affectionate, nurturing, and modest.  Behaviors arising from such characteristics might be: being a good listener, supporting others, expressing concern for others’ welfare, being cooperative, avoiding attention, speaking softly or tentatively.  These features are counter to what is traditionally expected in a leader, but are not entirely without merit in that role.  For example, some effective leaders are good at “reading” other people, especially body language.  

I am talking here about general qualities and perceptions related to gender; there are obviously exceptions, with men having communal qualities and women with agentic qualities. 

We can see how a female, in attempting to meld her naturally communal qualities with those qualities associated with a leader, would develop a somewhat different leadership style than a male whose natural inclinations already coincided with strong leadership qualities.  A female who is naturally assertive, out-spoken, and competitive would perhaps develop a leadership style more like that of a male with similar tendencies.  We could also envision a male with communal qualities becoming a leader with a mixture of qualities more like the first female.

Problems arise mostly because of other people’s expectations: their beliefs are upheld with men in the role of leader, but not with women. This is partly due to traditional views of the female gender role, which is seen as inconsistent with the leadership role.  Here’s where the Double-Bind comes in.  There is often prejudice against female leaders, because leadership abilities are more stereotypic of men. However females who exhibit strong leadership qualities are also viewed less favorably because their behavior is counter to what is expected of the female gender.  We can't win.

It’s easy to see, then, that a woman who behaves in a stereotypically female fashion will not be viewed as an effective leader, whereas a woman who exhibits mostly male-stereotypical qualities (assertive, competitive, etc.) will also be viewed as a flawed leader (or at least not readily accepted).  Research shows that women who adopt a very authoritative and directive leadership style often encounter resistance, whereas men with exactly the same qualities are gauged to be highly competent leaders.  Some women try to take charge in a very authoritative fashion, in an attempt to show they are strong leaders, but this approach backfires for them.

There is thus the possibility that a woman who exhibits the strong qualities of a leader, but also shows some communal behaviors (warm, cooperative, nurturing), will have better success.  However, she will still be at a disadvantage because her supportive behaviors may be interpreted as weaknesses (in a leader).  However, this may depend on specifics of which leadership features are adopted (e.g., autocratic vs. democratic) in combination with the communal qualities she exhibits....and what the organizational expectations are.

Do I know women who exhibit these different styles of behavior, either in leadership positions or who are potential leaders?  Yes, I can think of examples for all of these.  See the next post for more on this topic.

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