As a feminist and social justice educator I began studying the interconnections between these concepts with our societal beliefs about “leadership” many years ago when I came to work as the director of a women’s center. In a previous role at a different institution, I had connected with leadership studies and taught a 3-credit leadership course.
As I approached the role in the Women’s Center, I was combing through the literature imagining applying my knowledge as a leadership educator in my new role. As I looked through the library and references, I grew increasingly fascinated by the plethora of books and articles about “Women’s Leadership” and as I read through these volumes, it was absolutely fascinating how women in leadership are portrayed. After a rather thorough examination of these resources and my previous leadership texts, I was and am struck by how deeply we hold to our socialized beliefs about leadership in society. In fact, if I took a random sample of people and asked them to, off the top of their head, identify someone who they consider to be a leader in society, business, government, administration, or education, I can almost guess the average profile of the person who might come to mind: a white, middle-aged, straight, male.
Via much of our leadership texts and role models in society, we are taught to think about leadership as patriarchal, hierarchical, competitive, heroic, and individualistic. Our deeply held societal gender roles of men aligns with and supports the belief that men can and will be more effective leaders. In fact, until more recently much of the existing leadership literature has been written by men and studied men in leadership roles. This doesn’t mean that women and members of underrepresented groups don’t also practice hierarchical leadership, but there’s a growing body of evidence to say that they think about leadership differently.
Why has the leadership literature and studied primarily studied men in leadership roles?It’s generally accepted that women and members of underrepresented groups have traditionally faced more barriers to becoming leaders then men have. And, while there’s general agreement that women have faced more barriers, there’s less agreement on how women actually lead. Much of the literature and research about women’s styles of leadership have focused on essentialism and stereotypes based on our societal beliefs about femininity. Stereotypes of the universal feminine don’t generally mesh with society’s perspectives about “leadership”. You all know the stereotypes; women are seen as nurturing, more relational, emotional, more caring, less assertive, and less confrontational than men. As Alice Eagly notes, “Gender role expectations spill over onto leadership roles and produce important consequences” (2007).
Interestingly, Albino notes “leadership styles usually associated with women are often employed by effective leaders of either gender.” But it’s important to note that a leadership style that conforms to the way that women are expected to behave, whether attributed to nature, socialization, or gender role, is not the same thing as a style that is feminist. In a meta-analytic study called “Gender and the Effectiveness of Leaders” Alice Eagly examined 76 different studies in which men and women managers, supervisors, officers, department heads, and coaches were compared. The analysis showed no significant gender difference in judged leader effectiveness. But there was evidence that leadership by women and men was considered more effective when they functioned as leader in situations thought to be most congenial to the cultural expectations for their gender.
Interestingly enough, adopting relational leadership style will not gain the same recognition for women as it does for men, since it is consider “natural” for women, but it is the cultural expectations that matters to the perceivers who filter these judgments of effective leadership.
So, what is the difference between feminine leadership and feminist leadership? Feminine leadership is defined by behaviors that are presumed to characterize women. But, feminine leadership fails to recognize and make salient the inherent power differential based on societal oppression (or sexism) that disproportionately affects women as compared to men. Feminine leadership also fails to recognize heterogeneity among women, relying on essentialism and stereotypes. Feminist leadership, then, is defined by a set of assumptions and values while paying attention to historical and contemporary circumstances that have created power inequities and oppression for women and other underrepresented groups. Despite differences among feminist theories, there are central points of agreement about equality of representation and empowerment.
The modern feminist movement hasn’t featured much discussion on leadership, which has been, as I’ve mentioned previously, largely a privilege of men in society. Feminists focused more so on topics with more salience, sexual harassment and discrimination, violence against women, reproductive rights, etc. But, studies of feminist leadership have been cropping up recently and this has sparked my own interest in the topic and my attempts to promote feminist leadership within various roles that I’ve held, including while working in a women’s center.
So, what do I mean by feminist leadership? Feminist leadership is about attending to issues of social justice, focusing on equity, empowerment, fairness, and balance. Feminist leaders are cognizant of larger issues of oppression and work to ensure that no one, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ability, is treated unfairly. Feminist leadership is also about community development and collaboration. bell hooks writes that “everyone’s presence and participation must be valued” in a community.
- Chin, J. L. (2007). Women and leadership: Transforming visions and diverse voices. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.