Women and Leadership: Delicate Balancing Act | | | |
Written by Hilary Lips |
Thursday, 02 April 2009 20:16 |
There are several key ways in which people respond differently to women and men who are leaders. I’ll outline these differences, identify the ways in which such responses affect women’s leadership, and propose some solutions to smooth the way for women leaders.The UnitedStates recently traveled quite a way down the road toward electing its first woman president.Yet, incongruously, as the Hillary Clinton campaign picked up speed, an inordinate amount of attention was paid to a frivolous observation about the “low-cut” neckline of an outfit worn during a speech she gave on the Senate floor.As the first primaries approached, her campaign scrambled to embark on ablitz to present her as “likable and heartwarming,” to balance the “strength and experience” theme that had seemed especially necessary for a female candidate. It appears that the acceptable scripts for women in powerful public political roles are still rigidly defined and easy to violate—by being too “pushy” or too “soft,” too “strident” or too accommodating, too sexless or too sexual. It seems alltoo easy for women leaders to run afoul of their constituents or their colleagues by deviating from the narrowly-defined set of behaviors in which cultural femininity overlaps with leadership. With the necessity to conform to two, often conflicting, sets of expectations, high-profile women leaders in the United States are relentlessly held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Ifwomen are to claim their share of leadership positions, and to operate effectively within such positions, women and men must be aware of these differential expectations, know how they affect both leaders and constituents, and understand what responses may be useful.Women in leadership roles elicit different responses than do men.Power operates as a social structure, made up of numerous practices thatmaintain a cultural system of dominance. The practices that maintain a power system include patterns of discourse, shared understandings about and participation in a set of values, expectations, norms and roles. This social structure transcends, in some respects, the wishes or behavior of any particular individual and has a tendency to shape decisions, interactions, and social relations to fitit. Responses to women and men in leadership roles are conditioned by a social structure traditionally dominated by men.Researchers have identified four key ways in which female and male leaders elicit different responses from those around them. These different responses appear to be due, not so much to different leadership behaviors by women and men, as to the stimulus value of women or men in theseroles. A woman leader stimulates a different reaction than a male leader because of learned expectations, shaped and supported by the surrounding social structure, that invalidate and undercut women’s attempts to be effective, influential, powerful. Women are expected to combine leadership with compassion.Researchers have long found that people think “male” when they think “leader,” and that thisresult transcends many cultural differences. Because of perceived incompatibility between the requirements of femininity and those of leadership, women are often required to “soften” their leadership styles to gain the approval of their constituents. Women who do not temper their agency and competence with warmth and friendliness risk being disliked and less influential; men face no suchnecessity to be agreeable while exercising power. Women who lead with an autocratic style are the targets of more disapproval than those who enact a more democratic style; men may choose the autocratic style with relative impunity, if they are effective leaders. When women demonstrate competent leadership within an explicitly masculine arena—something that often requires the application of a “harder”...
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