Think about the female leaders you admire – whether that’s in medicine, politics, business or even in your own family. Have you ever thought about what makes them so effective as leaders? Or why you revere them as a bit of a “#girlboss”, and why you may aspire to be like them?
Sure, it may be because you admire their intelligence, their achievements or their confidence – but it may have more to do with their innately female leadership style itself.
Leadership Styles: Finding your fit
Eagly and colleagues(1) describe a fantastic overview of this topic in their meta-analysis on the topic in 2003 (summarised below).
Before the 1990s, leadership was talked about as the concept of autocratic and democratic leadership. Democratic leaders include their followers in the decision making process while autocratic leaders exclude them. More contemporary research on leadership has centred on the idea that truly effective leaders don’t just instruct – they inspire. And so the concept of transformational leadership was born. The transformational leadership style is where a person leads by establishing themselves as a role model, by empowering and mentoring their followers, being innovative and by encouraging their subordinates to reach their fullest potential. The Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire measures this kind of leadership by five qualities – intellectual stimulation, individualised consideration, inspirational motivation and idealised influence (attributes and behaviours).
And the opposite to this? The style considered “laissez-faire” – essentially an absence of the leader when times are tough and a general disinterest in taking responsibility (and unfortunately, I’m sure we all know at least one person who acts this way!).
The Gender Divide
Early studies showed that woman were more likely to use interpersonal orientated and democratic leadership styles than men(1). In conjunction with this, they found that people reacted more negatively to women who used the autocratic and task orientated leadership styles – the overall appearance being that women are less likely to use a kind of leadership style that paints them in an unfavourable light with those who they are leading(1).
Furthermore, theorists have argued that leaders operate under the constraints of gender roles within their position in an organisation. This is particularly tricky for women because their gender is associated with connotations of friendliness and sense of community, whereas men are associated more with independence and assertiveness (which are thought of as more ‘leadership’ qualities traditionally). Eagly and Karau have argued women are more harshly criticised for their actual leadership behaviour because being independent and assertive (i.e. “more male”) is considered to be less desirable in women, because it goes against what we expect of women in society. Essentially, the theory that if a man is strong, loud and self-assure, he’s a role model. If a woman exhibits the same, she’s a bit of a b**ch. In fact, the literature shows that women receive more negative feedback when they exert control and dominance in their leadership style. Hello double standard!
So what happens as a result? Women tend to use a leadership style that reflects their gender role.
Women as Transformational Leaders
Transformational leadership is the happy middle ground for women – the way that effective leadership aligns itself with how women are perceived in society. When woman are treated with suspicion in authority positions, the negative reaction towards them can be softened using transformational leadership principals (like mentorship and emphasising the focus on the ‘greater good’ of the organisation etc)(1).
As illustrated in Eagly and colleagues meta-analysis, women are more likely to exhibit the traits of transformational leaders than men (in all domains of intellectual stimulation, individualised consideration, inspirational motivation and idealised influence)(1). So what happens when woman behave this way? They have been found to be more effective as leaders, and inspire extra effort from their followers, who report more satisfaction with the leadership style itself. Indeed, women’s leadership styles “are more focused on aspects of leadership that predict effectiveness”(1).
So, woman as transformational leaders just don’t instruct – they inspire. Effective leadership qualities are not isolated to the Y chromosome, so let’s kick the imposter syndrome to the curb and focus more on our innate ability to be an absolute #girlboss if we want to!
- Eagly AH, Johannesen-Schmidt MC, Van Engen ML. Transformational, Transactional, and Laissez- Faire Leadership Styles: A Meta- Analysis Comparing Women and Men. Psychological Bulletin. 2003;129(4):569-91.