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Gendered Leadership

Stephanie is a manager at a fast-paced financial services company in New York. She is a hard worker and demands the same from her direct reports. Stephanie is an incisive thinker and comes up with ideas and frequently leans on her peers, direct reports, and even her supervisors to ensure these ideas come to fruition.

James is one of Stephanie’s peers and his strengths lie in supporting the team in small ways. James is good at recognizing when his teammates are having trouble asserting themselves and he encourages them to voice their ideas. When there is conflict within the team, James is excellent at expressing both people’s needs and moving the team toward a collaborative solution.

Both Stephanie and James are up for the same promotion and their manager Tom is having trouble choosing between the two. James seems to be at a disadvantage as he is less comfortable advocating for himself, while Stephanie has no problem lauding her own accomplishments and frequently goes out with Tom and the senior team for happy hour after work.

What are the first few adjectives that come to mind when describing Stephanie? What about James? Who would you rather have on your team, Stephanie or James? If you were Tom, who would you be more inclined to promote? Who do you feel is more competent, Stephanie or James?

I use similar vignettes to the one above in order to help people explore their gender-stereotypes. (It is important to note the difference between sex and gender. Sex is a physical attribute while gender is an identity.) In this example there was a female manager using masculinized managerial tactics and a male manager using feminized managerial tactics. If the names were switched in the story, and James were more assertive and Stephanie more communal, how would that impact your answers to the questions I posed? What if they were both male? What if they were both female? Try using those four versions (male/female, female/male, male/male, and female/female) and asking others for their responses to the questions. The results might surprise you, though they are probably predictable. Our societal expectations of men and women conform to specific gender role expectations and there are varying penalties for violating those expectations. Women enacting male-gender stereotypes are often thought of as abrasive, pushy, and opportunistic. Would you have thought James was using his sex appeal to get ahead if he were the one going out for drinks with the boss after work? Would you have felt a man was being pushy if he were leaning on his peers to get his own ideas enacted, or would you more likely have felt he was a “go-getter”? Men enacting female-gender stereotypes are seen as soft, lacking in agency, and being pushovers. Sure, James is a great guy and helps the team when he is facilitating dialogue, but would you want him making big decisions? Would you have the same pedantic response to a woman?

Leaders are decision makers who affect other people’s lives. As leaders ascend to positions of higher responsibility, the number of people they affect grows, sometimes exponentially. Because of this, I believe leaders have a responsibility to examine the stereotypes and prejudices they have. And yes, everyone has them, without exception. The fact that we use stereotypes is apparently an automatic part of the human condition* and so the best we can do is examine the way those stereotypes affect our feelings and our decisions to become more aware of these effects. Given the responsibility and authority leaders have, it is incumbent on them to be proactive in this exploration. Leaders need to think about the ways people are penalized for enacting gender roles that violate gender-stereotypic prescriptions.

I will end this post with one last question along the same lines of the ones I asked after the vignette. Would you feel the same about this post if it were written by a woman? Or would she be considered one of those f-words – a feminist?

*Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54(7), 462-479.

Comments

Great blog entry Joaquin. As a researcher I am keenly aware that for decades our scientific understanding of leadership has been primarily based on studies conducted on White men in the United States. As your vignette illustrates, dynamics related to gender -- such as stereotypes, role expectations, power and status differentials -- can impact many aspects of leadership, including the way it is studied. Our understanding continues to evolve and today one may notice a shift away from the glass ceiling metaphor that was widespread in the 90's. Today women and ethnocultural minorities still often lack access to leadership roles, but as experts Eagly and Carli* recently observed, the challenges appear to take the form of a labyrinth. I applaud your effort to move us beyond the simply dichotomy of "people skills = feminine" and "task skills = masculine". Moving forward, perhaps a more androgynous understanding of leadership would be more inclusive and representative of all.

*Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

PS. My reply above was inspired by an article in the latest edition of American Psychologist (April 2010), which focuses on diversity and leadership. I found Ayman and Korabik's article "Leadership: Why gender and culture matter" to be comprehensive and rather lengthy, but also insightful.

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