The leadership work that I do firmly centers the experience and viewpoints of those who identify as women.
I explore leadership through the lens of feminist and critical theory, which means that I attempt to a light on social problems, trends, and issues that are otherwise overlooked or misidentified by the historically dominant male perspective within social theory, and also offering a critique of society with a goal to change it.
Therefore, it is important to name the systems that are at play in most of our organizations and are impacting our day to day lives because this informs the climate in which we operate. One of the systems at play is patriarchy.
Patriarchy is defined as a social system in which men hold power and control in official capacities as well as holding primary power in moral authority and social privilege.
So with regards to patriarchy, how does this influence our traditionally held views of leadership?
Schein’s research from 1976 describes how the traits we associate with leadership align perfectly with those traits stereotypically described as masculine as opposed to the traits stereotypically described as feminine in what she calls the “think manager think male” phenomenon. This is where we are culturally encouraged to look to men as leaders and seek their advice on how to lead.
Traditional gender roles and stereotypes are at play here, and gender bias is the result that we see play out in many organizations. Subconsciously or consciously, this can be keeping women from thriving in leadership positions, as well as in gendered occupations such as engineering.
The second piece of theory that I’d like to discuss is the double bind. If a woman conforms to the stereotypically “feminine” traits like being helpful, kind, sympathetic, sensitive, nurturing, or gentle, she may be liked but she may not be seen as leadership material. If a woman operates in a more stereotypically “masculine” way meaning that she is aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self- sufficient, or self-confident, she risks being seen as being “too much”, and is judged harshly or disliked…and still not seen as leadership material.
All of this is happening in the collective, and it’s on women’s minds! So how does this impact how they present themselves in the workplace. There are a few things that happen here. Sometimes we see women “perform gender”, which means that they either play up their feminine or masculine traits. This is kind of like the damsel in distress or the tough guy tropes. There’s the Queen Bee phenomenon, where women distance themselves from other women by showing how they’re not like the others and aligning themselves with more masculine behaviors. Along with this goes the tendency of these women to not help other women because there can only be one queen.
On top of all of this, women’s experiences in the workplace are often dismissed or diminished. This constant undermining has detrimental effects on women’s confidence, self-esteem, and their feelings of self-efficacy.
Overall, the reactions to gender bias often means that women in corporate, especially male-dominated fields, do a lot of self-monitoring and putting on of masks to reduce the gap between what their natural tendencies, strengths, and traits are and what is stereotypically expected of either their gender or position.
All of this deep acting can be exhausting for women! Leading in our own way is no small task. To not fall in line means that we will struggle to swim upstream.
But the fight is worth it. For ourselves and for the other strong women around us.