The Feminization of Leadership?

By Smith, Patricia L.; Smits, Stanley J. | Training & Development, February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Feminization of Leadership?


Smith, Patricia L., Smits, Stanley J., Training & Development


IN THE WORKPLACE, WOMEN AND MEN CAN MELD THEIR UNIQUE STYLES OF LEADERSHIP TO MAXIMIZE THEIR STRENGTHS AND MINIMIZE THEIR WEAKNESSES.

Both demographically and conceptually, business appears to be undergoing a feminization of leadership.

More women are breaking into top corporate slots, and more are successfully launching their own companies. Meanwhile, popular notions of successful leadership now encompass characteristics traditionally associated with women.

The eighties business archetype--self-absorbed, competitive, aggressive, and even ruthless--has been reborn for the nineties as a selfless steward. The latter leads by helping subordinates, cooperating with peers, and nurturing a sense of family in the workplace--behaviors that many people believe are more consistent with the early socialization of females in most cultures.

If the trend toward more female leaders persists, and if emerging perceptions of effective leadership become entrenched, women could find the rules of the game altered in their favor.

But even as the business press touts a new vision of leadership that favors women's strengths, most women still encounter gender-based barriers at work that slow or stymie their progress. As women reach executive suites in greater numbers, then, how does their presence affect the organizational environment for other women? Do women exercise leadership differently than men do? And if so, will "feminine" leadership succeed where "masculine" leadership does not? Our research suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that female leaders do influence the workplace differently than men do, even though female and male leaders' personal characteristics are very similar. We suspect--and other research strongly indicates--that the differences between women's and men's leadership styles account for this difference.

Structure or socialization?

Consider the two primary schools of thought that experts cite to explain the differences men and women encounter at work.

The structuralist theory argues that men and women receive different treatment in the workplace and that these differences--in such things as job status, duties, and tenure--cause men and women to behave differently at work and to have different attitudes about work. This theory asserts that stamping out gender bias will stamp out differences between men and women at work.

Changes Observed and Advocated by Leadership Experts

From:                                         To:

leader as master (leadership                  leader as colleague (leadership
from above)                                   from within)

influence through exercise of                 influence through persuasion
legitimate power (position)                   (interpersonal networking)

competitive (play hard)                       cooperative (play fair)

individualism (by me, for me)                 collectivism (team first)

exclusionary (divide and conquer).            inclusionary (power sharing,
                                              sense of family).

In contrast, the socialization theory contends that men and women experience work differently because they bring different histories, perceptions, and behaviors to the workplace. The socialization theory maintains, for example, that men see work as more central to their lives than women do.

Research to support both perspectives abounds, convincing us that both theories are valid: Men and women act differently in the workplace; they also are treated differently in the workplace.

Gender and leadership

How do these structural and social differences affect leadership roles? Before the 1970s, few researchers considered the role gender plays in the exercise of leadership. Nor did leadership-development programs consider the particular challenges female executives face. The structure of most workplaces was developed by males to accommodate males. …

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