Gender Stereotypes of Leaders: Do They Influence Leadership in Higher Education?

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article reviews social psychological and organizational development literature on gender stereotypes and leadership style and effectiveness and explores its relevance for leadership in higher education. Implications of the dichotomous stereotypes of "friendly vs. competent" and "agentic vs. communal" frame a discussion of social psychological research on how stereotypes affect perceptions of leaders. Ways to overcome stereotypes and the application of feminist values to leadership strategies are also discussed.

Gender stereotypes are pervasive and have an impact on all aspects of women's and men's behavior. Social psychology and organizational development literature on gender stereotypes provide insight into pervasive expectations that influence how women are perceived or view themselves in situations where leadership is required. Differences in leadership styles associated with gender affect the perceived effectiveness of leaders. This paper explores the application of this literature to leadership in higher education, comparing descriptive studies of gender issues in leadership in education with studies of leadership in other settings, and providing suggestions about responding to stereotypic expectations.

Social Psychology of Gender Stereotypes

Two themes from the voluminous research on gender stereotypes are particularly pertinent to a discussion of leadership because they point to the contradictory expectations imposed upon women leaders. One stereotypic dimension applied to women posits that "competent" and "friendly" are bipolar opposites on a single trait dimension (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Goodwin & Fiske, 2001). That is, an individual can not be both competent and friendly: the choices are to be either competent and cold or incompetent and friendly. In relationship to leadership, people who are more masculine than feminine in appearance are judged as more competent. Furthermore, cold women are perceived as unfeminine, creating another overlay dimension: women can be feminine, warm, and incompetent or masculine, cold, and competent.

A second dichotomy that pertains to leadership is between "agentic" and "communal" leadership styles. Agentic behavior is task-oriented and focused on outcomes; communal behavior is focused on group dynamics and the process of decision making. Because these behaviors are seen as mutually exclusive, it is expected that one cannot be both agentic and communal; the gendered expectation is that women are more communal and men more agentic (Eagly & Carli, 2007).

Research on the social psychology of stereotypes emphasizes that the context in which judgments occur is important. While there is much research on contextual impacts on judgments, a recent study refines the analysis in regard to leadership. The study involved placing people in situations that created varied degrees of attentiveness. People in a situation where they are paying close attention are more likely to adjust their view of leadership for influence of a stimulus person's gender, in contrast to people who are overloaded cognitively. Overloaded individuals are apparently not focusing on characteristics of the stimulus people such as gender in their analysis of a leader's effectiveness and therefore gender does not influence assessment of leader efficacy in that condition (Sczesny & Kühnen, 2004).

These cognitive conditions are related to how stereotypes influence thoughts about leadership. Scott and Brown (2006) actually looked at the information processing that occurs as people view leaders in action. In their study perceivers had difficulty encoding leadership behavior into leadership traits when behavior was agentic and the actor was female. That is, agentic leadership traits came to mind less readily than communal leadership traits with female leaders. In addition, agentic traits were also less accessible mentally when the leader was female than when the leader was male. …