Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Lady Leader

As we are concluding our discussions on defining and exploring leadership, I have found myself wondering what the role gender plays into the definition of leadership at the corporate level. I am particularly curious what the class makes of this, especially considering our class is primarily women (although boys, Al included, I will say have been extremely vocal with regards to all topics). For the most part, all of our readings (even those far dating all of us) are politically correct to not gender-ize leadership. For the most part, it appears that leadership is a combination of traits (DePree), situation (Goleman), and context (Selznick). But I can’t help but wonder if all the characteristics, situations, and contexts which contribute to a successful and effective leader, must be scaled differently depending upon gender. And if it does, does this directly imply that leadership is perhaps more anchored in trait theory (if we can even call gender a trait at all…) than initially thought?

We have spoken on leaders being empathetic, envisioning, and empowering (Choi). But I think that this is limited when speaking upon specific leaders. Often women who are seen as overly empathetic are perceived as overly sensitive and lacking aggression. In contrast, those women who display strict goals and some of the more aggressive tactics, ones that their male counterparts identically mirror, are seen as cutthroat, merciless and witches. My experience with women executives leaders has been limited. But for the most part, I have seen they are perceived as ruthless . Men are in contrast seen as driven and successful. Why is this? And what does it imply for future female leaders? What is the solution for working towards improving the perception of female leaders? I think that the glass ceiling that was in the past more present has cracked, but at the upper executive level, I think is far from being shattered.

As we are working towards characterizing a leader, I think that sometimes our definitions are catered towards the definition of the “male” leader (though I acknowledge not entirely). I don’t think that women can exercise usage of powers (Hughes) as freely as men are able to in the same degree. Coercive power is far more difficult for women to utilize than perhaps it is for men (regardless of its effectiveness). Also along with power, I believe that referent power needs to play a much higher role than legitimate power, simply because often subordinate males still prove to be more resistant to responding to such types of power. In much the same, charisma plays a much larger role in a women’s role as a leader than it may in a male’s role as a leader.

My main question that I am trying to answer is while we are working to qualify leadership, are we taking everything into consideration? Does gender even play a role at all in perception of leadership and thus the effectiveness of leadership? Does being a successful women take away from their status as feminine (such as Carly Fiorina, or even Hilary Clinton)? What types of leadership execution needs to (or unconsciously does) vary or yield depending upon gender?

PERSONAL NOTE: I am not a feminist male-hating individual and instead greatly appreciate the successes of our male counterpart in the progress of the workworld.


  1. Caitlin, what a coincidence, I ALSO am not a feminist male-hating individual! Funny - anyway I think your question is valid and often overlooked because many of us try to take gender out of the equation in determining whether or not someone is a leader. And maybe that is possible, but probably hard to do since most of us form an opinion from our first impression, part of which is the fact that the "leader" is obviously (or so we hope) a male or a female. This probably plays a part in our subconscious perception of the leader, don't you think? From my few years of experience observing male and female leaders in an organization, there is always a subtle difference in reaction/vibe and atmosphere in the room depending on the gender of the leader - at least initially. It seems traits are a main reason for this, and -generally speaking (so not all the time)- female leaders tend to be more relationship oriented while male leaders tend to be more task oriented.
    Interesting stuff and maybe the situation that is calling for leadership requires or would prefer one gender over the other.

  2. Thanks Alanna. I definitely think its part of our subconscious. I also don't think its necessarily wrong to view leaders differently depending upon their gender, since it's just natural. I also agree that a lot of it is based upon relationship too.

    It does seem though that as males become promoted, they are somehow seen as more masculine. But as females climb the corporate ladder, they are certainly not seen as more feminine.


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