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Gender in leadership

Code: EDUC8602


1) Leadership qualities and gender
2) Definition of leadership
3) Determinants of gender differences in leadership position and behavior
4) Leadership as a gendered concept
5) Theoretical approaches of Gender and leadership
6) Gender and characteristics of leadership: challenges for women



The issue of gender inequality has been an emerging topic of debate and discussion especially since late Eighteenth century. With the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman importance of women education in order to establish future leaders was well understood. Different societal norms and regulations throughout the ages have conceptualized leadership to be a masculine quality and the role of woman has been limited to a mere support system as they are considered merely as the counterpart or the mother of future leaders (Nahavandi, 2016). As a matter of fact evidently, the exercise of power and authority have been closely associated with the father figure of the society as birth right and a man’s prerogative.This study concentrates on the historical aspect of gender and leadership and in the light of the history of gender, leadership attributes from the perspective of gender, gender differences have been discussed. Along with that leadership as a gender concept has been elaborated with the aid of different theoretical approaches and leadership models in order to define several gender aspects of leadership.

Leadership qualities and gender

Throughout the concept of power has been faced a gendered approach and has been attributed to be a masculine quality. Power, society and culture have been associated with masculinity while critics have associated art and nature to be feminine attributes (Nadler & Bailey, 2015). The association between men and power has also been derived from the fact that the power of men has been public and visible throughout time and history but the power of women has been mostly covert and informal.

Certainly there are few basic qualities that are popularly associated with leadership. Some of the primary characteristics of leadership include independence, assertiveness, reliability, self-reliance, dominance, ambitious and ability to assess and confront risk. According to previous studies most people have agreed these attributes are often associated with effective leaders. It can be argued that these qualities certainly are not gender specific (McVay, 2016). These attributes along with qualities like honesty and ability to motivate the participants of any group are found both in males and females. Hence, becoming an effective leader certainly does not depend on the gender.

Previous research references on this particular issue and the study of the empirical data which are relevant, depict that leadership certainly does not depend on the biological sex of any person neither can it be associated with masculinity or femininity. There are no concrete key ingredients which can definite that gender plays a pivotal role in effective leadership.  

Definition of leadership

Leadership is “the process of influencing an organized group toward accomplishing its goals”. ( Roach & Behling, 1984). This is one of the many accepted definitions of leadership. In order to focus on the discussion on the role of gender in leadership, it is important to take a look at different worldwide acknowledged definitions of leadership. Primarily critics have defined leadership as a creative or directive force and a process through which the subordinates are induced to behave in a particular manner by an agent (Landis, Hill & Harvey, 2014).

Merton in his 1969 publication has perceived that leadership is an interpersonal relationship and the subordinates comply with it willingly not because of any kind of impositions. The attributes which are collected from these definitions clearly shows that these are not generic or gendered. Evidently aligning these attributes with any particular gender is political and deliberately preordained (McVay, 2016). History has glorified the prominent leaders who are men, somehow the history of women leaders have been shadowed and to some extent not lost under the “glorification of Phallus”. Considering the large body of evidence it can be stated that the definition of leadership indicates it to be gender neutral. The qualities of leadership transcends the concept of gender.

Determinants of gender differences in leadership position and behavior

The term “leader” refers largely to the persons who hold significant formal position of leadership in different institutional or organizational fields such as industry, education, politics, government and professions. The idea of behaving according to the established gender roles has precluded most to the females from becoming effective leaders in different organizations because of the patent thought that men are better in leading than women (Jackson,Alberti & Snipes, 2014). Moreover, this school of thinking has been challenged vastly since the late eighteenth century with the advent of several gender neutral critics and social activists who questioned the role of gender in the advent of leadership. Since early 1970s this school of assumption had been challenged by the large number of women who have been elected as the political and institutional heads of many countries (Ilie & Schnurr, 2017 ). Many business organizations have succeeded under the leadership of effective women leaders and the number of women who have been elevated to managerial positions and earned respectable positions according to their merits. In the 1970s gender and leadership started gaining popularity when gradually the women began to enter the arena of management.

Throughout the human history women have not been found traditionally outside the house in complex organization. The reason is political and such marginalization has been justified throughout with the established concept of femininity and womanhood. The Victorian concept of “angel of the house” emerging from the poetry of Coventry Patmore, limited the scope and opportunities that the women could have availed. The distinction between private life and public life has been instrumental in the discrimination of gender roles (Bark, Escartín, Schuh & van Dick,2016). The early childhood socialization that has been  imposed upon the female children has often defined the appropriate gender behavior. For women the role has always been stereotyped to be submissive,  passive and avoidance of aggression (Avolio & Yammarino,  2013). These are the traits that have been termed as feminine and evidently such traits are poles apart from the established leadership qualities. This childhood socialization has always created a conflict between the gender roles and while male child of a family always been encouraged to have leadership traits, the female child of the family has beenimposed with docility. 

According to different studies in this arena, experts have examined that the managerial behavior of men and women has three different aspects. The first one is task accomplishment style. It has been found that the male are more task oriented and the female are more relationship oriented. The behavioural difference is prominent (Bierema, 2017). But most studies have concluded that women and men do not behave any differently in the leadership position. Experienced woman managers show no differences as per as leadership qualities are concerned. These women elevated to higher positions closely resemble the male counterparts in skill, drive and temperament than average women of the population.

The second one is decision making styles. Women in the leading position tend to employ a more participative and democratic style while the men prefer to take directive and autocratic approach. Contemporary scholars have argued that the tendency of women to negotiate, facilitate, communicate and mediate have proved to be more effective leadership style than men’s obsessive emphasis on power and control (Landis,Hill & Harvey, 2014). This “feminine” style appeared  to be more effective in reducing the workplace hierarchy and satisfies the subordinates.

Leadership as a gendered concept

As it is mentioned earlier most of the population has believed leadership to be a completely masculine attribute throughout the ages. Even when the women are associated with leading positions, they have beenperceived to be individuals who can “influence” or “motivate” others. The majority of the studies which were collaborated dating back to 1970s indicated towards a tremendous gender bias regarding positioning of the women in different organizations and institutions. As found from majority of the studies conducted in 1991 such gender bias still exists in this century (Ilie & Schnurr, 2017). Though there are far more similarities than the differences in the leadership behavior of men and women but even today in spite of the similar intellectual capacity and merit women are less likely to be chosen as leaders or for higher authoritative post of any organization or institution. Furthermore, the construction of societal norms have represented the valorized leadership attributes negatively as per as any female leader is concerned.

Theoretical approaches of Gender and leadership

Sex and gender

In order to understand the theoretical approaches of gender in association with leadership it is important to understand the concept of sex and gender. The term ‘sex’ indicates the biological identity of a human being that is male or female. On the contrary gender is a more complex concept as it indicates towards the social role that is played by human beings. Often the concept of gender and sex coincide with each other (Grossman, Komai & Jensen, 2015). The concept of gender sheds light on the constructed roles played by the humans in order to satisfy or fulfill the expectation that the society imposed upon them since the inception of time. In the arena of leadership it is important to understand that conflict among the genders are not created because of the sexes. The gender roles and stereotypes lead to the conflict between the sexes. The effectiveness of a leader does not depend on the biological identity. Rather it is important to understand that imposed or structured gender roles stop one from the liberation of self as he or she can not act according to his will but acts according to the societal norms. Therefore, women as leaders are often  not accepted freely by the subordinates especially the male subordinates. On the contrary, as the women are supposed to be submissive according to the feminine caricature of the society, the female subordinates do not feel offended to work in the leadership of a man. It is true that the relationship between gender and leadership is mostly culminated because of different psychological traits of the two sexes (McVay, 2016). Moreover, till the end of seventeenth century, women mostly found it difficult to identify with the notion of leadership.

In the light of the discussion it can be stated that all social practices are structured when associated with gender. This includes different social practices such as organizing the businesses, governments, several institutions particularly educational institutions, including the leadership positions in the design of these organizations (Nahavandi, 2016). As evidently, social practices replicate the reproductive division of humans into male and female and it is said that the roles are gendered. Henceforth, gender becomes the property of the institutions through the historical process. Eventually it becomes a practice as the characteristic ofthe collective population, not of an individual. When aspect of gender is considered in the arena of leadership, such practice provides a well-established explanation for the difficulties that the women face traditionally while ascending or accelerate to leadership positions and desire to perform leader roles with ease.

Importance of gender role in association with leadership: Gender role orientation:

Gender studies have confronted the issue of structured gender role orientation since the late 1990s. The aspect of how any individual sees him or herself in terms of being masculine, feminine or androgynous have immense effect on the behavior of that person. The masculine attributes when found in males have always been encouraged but when the similar attributes have found in a woman, she has been portrayed to be a shrew or non-womanly. It can be evidently said that womanhood and gender is closely associated but womanhood can not be affected by the leadership attributes which are often associated with masculinity (Odumeru & Ogbonna, 2013). It indicates that masculinity is is a constructed gender role characteristics rather than biological sex. Masculinity has been the strongest predictor in the advent of self reported leaders. Feminine traits have hindered the women from acknowledging themselves to be leaders. It is important to note that the social construction portrays to women leaders who have strong masculine attributes. 

It is frequently seen that masculine and androgynous individuals are more likely to be accepted as leaders than any person, both male or female with feminine quality.

Contingency leadership models 

A closer look at the well known theories of leadership can help in deciphering the nuances associated with the issue of effectiveness of leaders related to gender. Specific characteristics of leadership that have been discussed in the earlier section of this study are defined by the following well known models of leadership (Wai & Lincoln,2016). Different models of leadership when studied in details focuses on the individual attributes of the leaders rather than their gender identity. Different studies have focused on that different theories of leadership are not based on the gender or sex of the leaders but the attributes associated with leadership are often categorized as essentially masculine.

Normative decision model

This particular model was formulated  in order to improve several aspects of leadership and its effectiveness. According to normative model, leaders are able to improve the performance of a group by participating in an optimal level.

(Figure 1: Normative model

Source: created by the researcher)

The nature of this particular model concludes that the decision making ability of a leader is very much gender neutral. This model also portrays that the nature of decision attributed by a leader effects its application on the participants or followers (Paustian-Underdahl, Walker & Woehr, 2014). Although having good decision making skills do not indicate at one’s ability to be an effective leader. It is important for a leader to have proper decision making skills but it is not the ultimate criterion of an effective leadership.

The contingency model

This theory suggests that effective leadership primarily requires selecting the appropriate leader for a certain situation or changing the situation in order to fit a particular leader’s style. This theory takes a greater look at the individual skills of the leaders and focuses on the follower as well as the situation.

According to this model, basic personality traits are established early in life and the experiences of an individual determines the type of leadership that they are going to use. The model contradicts many leadership models as it does not consider the variety of leadership to be related to effectiveness of a particular leader. However, analysing the gaps of this particular model it can be stated that leadership can not be inherited. As the Great Man theory suggests that certain leadership qualities and skills are inherited and the effective leaders are born with such qualities. But further studies have proved that leadership skills are achievable through practice.

Gender differences are found in the transactional and transformational leadership as gender stereotypes exist in both cases. It is found that the women are more prone to overcome different social obstacles in order to prove themselves as effective leaders. Some early studies for example the research done by Eagly and Johnson is 1990 focuses on the fact that women throughout have prefered to lead in a more interpersonal oriented style rather than task oriented style (Wai & Lincoln,2016). The male leaders have been more interested in the task oriented style of leadership. 

Gender and characteristics of leadership: challenges for women

Considering the study of Brian  Mitchell, it can be stated that in different arenas women have encountered several obstacles before proving themselves to be effective leaders. Mitchell pointed out significantly what are the glaring problems that the women face in the service academies. Character effectiveness is an important factor of effective leadership. Characteristics like responsibility, optimism, trustworthiness, adaptability, optimism and integrity transcend gender roles. Critics like Gutek and Morasch have argued that gender roles in some cases affect the leadership roles and the constructed gender often provides a somewhat implicit background identity which is relevant to leadership.

Gender stereotypes or the stereotypical belief regarding how a man or woman should behave often works as an obstacle for the female leaders from acting according to their designation. Any generalization regarding the attributes of men or women reveal the character domain of gender roles in the domain of leadership (Paustian-Underdahl, Walker & Woehr, 2014). In the arena of leadership roles which transcends the managerial role effectively in many cases, has proved to be challenging particularly for women and the men with “feminine” attributes. As per the Role Congruity Theory, the agentic qualities are considered to be  necessary in the leadership role and evidently these leadership roles are incompatible with the women as the communal qualities are associated with women stereotypically. Therefore, evidently in leadership roles women often encounter opposing forces such as impositions like leaders need to possess agentic qualities or masculine characteristics but the social caricature of feminine models have taught them not to be “too manly”. The women as leaders often hurdle with their identity stuck between masculinity and femininity (Wai & Lincoln,2016). Rather it is important to look at Virgina Woolf’s idea of androgyny that emphasizes on both the masculine and feminine equilibrium in one’s “self” or in Freudian language “ego.” in order to act as an effective leader it is important to acquire leadership skills not masculine or feminine attributes that necessarily define the abstract or intangible adjectives.


Gender and leadership demands detailed delving into different aspects of societal gender roles in order to understand the crux of the issue. Serious and thoughtful discussion and consideration effectively help to understand the political, professional, social realities of gender in the arena of leadership as far as twenty first century is concerned. The detailed analysis of the literature significantly proves that gender is a complex concept that can not be simply described as the biological difference of sexes. In recent times social critics have observed that the concept of power is neutral and the tinged psychosexual connotations regarding authority, domination and masculinity is to some extent can considered to be vague and irrational. Considering  more  recent times, it can be stated that the persistent domination that the male image of power has been questioned several times with the emergence of lively debate on gender. In the light of the study it can be stated that logically and rationally without any bias it is evident that the skills and styles of leadership is not dependent on the gender and gender stereotypes seem to only hinder the effectiveness of leadership.

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