Does Gender Still Matter? How?

Of course, gender matters, just as other demographic differences influence the way we view others and the way others view us. So, it’s the second question about “how?” that warrants our attention, and that changes over time, especially when discussing the role of gender at work and in society.

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We’ll raise this question in a practical context of work. Specifically, we’ll consider how it influences our perception of leadership potential and competence. But, since norms in the workplace generally reflect the prevailing norms in society, this discussion has broader implications for all of us.

Gendered Ways of Leading

A classic source of bias, the think-manager-think-male model, was described by Edgar Schein, an MIT psychologist, in the 70's. As an element of organizational culture, Schein argued that demographically oriented mindsets like this operate as an implicit theory of what good looks like in management and leadership. And recent research suggests this bias persists, especially in certain segments.[1]

It favors masculine tendencies in thought, feeling, and action: Thought = means-end problem solving and rational-instrumental analysis; Feeling = aggressive-competitive emotions that drive achievement; and Action = a structured system of individual roles, managed hierarchically, tightly focused on task.[2]  

This mental model of management and leadership becomes a filter in terms of which we evaluate the worthiness of a person’s competency or potential as a manager. Styles that fall outside this paradigm are less likely to be noticed or affirmed. They may even be seen as a contraindication of potential.

The traditional masculine model is more likely to emphasize the heroic actions of the individual, while a feminine version is more likely to exhibit a collaborative style. But recent research suggests that the so-called feminine features of leadership are increasing being adopted by men and women.[3]

What is this feminine style? Here are some examples of what distinguishes it:

  • Intuitively sensing that something is not working or doesn't make sense might lead her to pause, reflect, and "problematize" the issue in order to make it visible for all to review and analyze.

  • Recognizing that key stakeholders are feeling uncertain or holding back expression of concerns, she may pause action-oriented discussion, inquire about potential barriers or unseen risks.

  • An awareness that during execution it is helpful to invite, encourage, and expect acts of leadership from others at all levels may cause her to share power more widely, less hierarchically.

It’s About Civility, Respect, and Communications

Civility is about social norms of politeness, courtesy, and propriety. Sound old fashioned? Well, what about feeling respected and heard, and feeling that someone is really trying to understand our concerns from our point of view? Is that old fashioned too? These are some of what distinguishes the so-called feminine approach to management and leadership. 

I say “so-called” because I really believe these are norms that reflect human beings at our best. Perhaps women have traditionally been more conditioned by social roles and culture to value and practice these norms. They have and they continue to provide most of the care-giving (children & elders) for others who may need a bit more time, patience, and support to express their views and needs. 

And in our intensely rushed, 24/7 world, perhaps we’re all a bit more in need of a more patient capacity to listen and to be heard. Perhaps we must recognize the need to slow down, let our mind (insight, emotions, and action bias) to catch up with what our psycho-physical system is feeling when it’s overwhelmed. Perhaps both men and women owe it to one another to practice this “feminine” art.

Notes:

[1] Recent meta-analytic research (Koenig et al, 2011) examined over 50 separate studies and found that this bias in what leadership looks like is alive and well. They also found that it is more likely to prevail in the traditionally male-dominated segments of our economy (engineering, technology, defense contractors). 

[2] Recent research also found that other gendered qualities such as voice tone (Anderson & Klofstad, 2012) and personality characteristics (Drydakis et al, 2018) favor the masculine. And the more predominant the male representation as a share of management is, the more the male bias prevails (Stoker et al, 2012).  

[3] An encouraging sign from the Koenig et al study (2011) was the finding that there is growing appreciation for stereotypically feminine approaches to leadership that place more value on relationships, collaboration, open communications, etc. Also see Shair-Rosenfield & Stoyan (2018) on the feminine use of influence vs. decree.

References Cited:

Anderson, R. C., & Klofstad, C. A. (2012). Preference for Leaders with Masculine Voices Holds in the Case of Feminine Leadership Roles. Plos ONE, 7(12), 1-4. 

Drydakis, N., Sidiropoulou, K., Bozani, V., Selmanovic, S., & Patnaik, S. (2018). Masculine vs feminine personality traits and women’s employment outcomes in Britain. International Journal Of Manpower, 39(4), 621-630. 

Koenig, A., Eagly, A., Mitchell, A., & Ristikari, T. (2011). Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (4), 616-642.

Shair-Rosenfield, S., & Stoyan, A. T. (2018). Gendered Opportunities and Constraints: How Executive Sex and Approval Influence Executive Decree Issuance. Political Research Quarterly, 71(3), 586-599. 

Stoker, J. I., Van, d. V., & Lammers, J. (2012). Factors relating to managerial stereotypes: The role of gender of the employee and the manager and management gender ratio. Journal of Business and Psychology, 27(1), 31-42.