Posted by: mfelter | October 27, 2016

Gender: Our everyday costume

Whenever there is a discussion revolving around women and leadership I always find myself more inclined to challenge the structured expectations surrounding gender and what it means to be a “woman” than I find myself questioning what it means to be a “leader.” As a class we seemingly agree that most of the struggles female leaders face stem from the dissonance between “leader” and “women” which happens because for generations the idea of “leader” has been so gendered that it has become inherently masculine. However, if we aim to create a more woman-accepting space in leadership, I believe it is more effective to break down gender expectations rather than leader expectations. Our reading from a few weeks ago summed it up beautifully:

“The argument that organizations need to be better at appreciating feminine skills of female leaders in order to embrace a more modern or inclusive organizational culture […] upholds gender dichotomies as they rest on stereotypical notions of the masculine and feminine.” (Muhr & Sullivan, 2013).

Essentially, I don’t think “feminizing” leadership is a solution. Rather, I think a solution lies in diverging from the practice of gendering traits, actions, and bodies (and pretty much everything else…seriously we’ll gender anything…men’s dish-soap is a thing…literally why?) The truth of the matter is very few, if any, individuals embody what it means to be quintessentially “man” or “woman.” We all have traits, mannerism, experiences, styles, etc. that divert from those two rigidly defined categories; therefore, we face backlash in varying degrees based on our adherence. As women we experience backlash for existing in the “masculine” domain of leadership, yet feminizing leadership simply creates more expectations and thus more backlash for those who don’t embody femininity. This is glaringly evident when we look at gender “deviant” leaders. Although the trans woman mentioned in our reading was a good example, her goal to “pass” represents an attempt to move from one binary to another (man to woman). What about individuals who step far outside both gender binaries?

I have mentioned before that I am close with a non-binary individual who is also a prominent leader on her college campus. While I am certainly limited to a second-hand view of her experiences, witnessing the ways she is pushed and pulled between gendered leadership expectations has sharpened my consciousness to the damages of gender expectations. For those who latch onto her feminine name and use of her/she pronouns, she is expected to be communal, nurturing, and kind. For those who emphasize her surgically flattened chest and buzzed undercut, she is pressured to be assertive, autocratic, and logical. Both sets of pressures inhibit the effectiveness of her leadership and her follower/leader interaction.

The majority of individuals may not experience the duality of those pressures, but I think it highlights the trouble in simply stretching the concept of leadership to encompass feminine stereotypes. We all conform to the preexisting binary in varying degrees; therefore, we are all “fail” to perform our gender “correctly” in varying degrees and meeting gender expectations is simply one massive, unnecessary challenge that distracts from the actual leader process. Although I think we are leagues away from ever eradicating gendered stereotypes, I wonder what leadership would look like if we were to remove the idea of a binary and embrace the nebulous idea of a gender spectrum.



  1. I find the different ways humans interact with different genders so interesting. Just from the immediate appearance of someone dictates how we speak to them, what we expect of them, what we think about them, etc. The way I am spoken to as a woman is almost second nature to me now. I have been thinking about it a little more since I have been in this class and the only time I really notice it is when it is something odd or negative. I could only image how different it would be to be non binary and the way that person is treated. I would love to be a male for a day or not a woman to actually see how the “other side” is treated. I think it would be very interesting to be able to experience all aspects of the gender scale because we are all treated so differently.

  2. I also really want to see a degendering of leadership. Something I found really interesting during the two women and leadership interviews was that when I asked both women about their leadership styles and described agentic “masculine” leadership and communal “feminine” leadership, both reacted the same. They both said that while they found a balance, they preferred a more relational, team oriented approach, What was most interesting though, was that they both mentioned that according to research they had done, and experiences they had, it was the better approach to leadership. They both expressed that the idea of gendering that type of leadership as feminine (which degrades it/and both genders, whether intentionally or not), was uncomfortable and restrictive. I thought it was interesting that two women from totally different positions both thought about this and I wondered how many more out in the leadership world feel the same way.

  3. There are many more accessible examples of what it means to be a woman than a woman leader. Thousands of movies, books, and advertisements tell me what makes me a female but relatively few inform me on what a female leader is like. Women leaders exist, obviously, but often their personal narratives are overshadowed by other news. Media picks and choses what we as viewers see, so we need to let the media know we want more coverage on women making a difference. Most forms of media are allowing the user to filter what comes on their newsfeed through settings and interest categories. I agree that there should be a focus on effective leadership traits outside of historically gendered terms. I wonder if a focus on leadership theory in the place of biographic studies would help us focus on leading as an action and not a gendered individual?

  4. I would argue that women whom posses feminine qualities are more respected compared to who whom exert masculine qualities. I can recall learning in a sociology class about deviant behavior. In other words, behaviors that exist outside of the culturally accepted norms in society. Additionally, we learned that when you exceed those boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable you are more likely to be an outcast or resented. This relates to the leadership domain because when women stay within generally accepted behavior they are able to transgress the boundaries put in place from the elaborate labyrinth. However, if women leaders choose to break the norms, and break the rules, they are more likely to experience distress. Personally, I would rather follow the rules instead of being deviant. It allows for much smoother experiences.

    • This is certainly an interesting argument, but we have discussed at length in class the difficulties that accompany embracing “feminine” stereotypes while performing leadership. Specifically, we have talked about the lack of respect and characterization as “ditz” most “overly” feminine women experience. Also I would argue that gendering leadership as “male” (as it has historically been categorized in our society) would cast any woman attempting to lead as “deviant.” It is a bit hard to win either way, which was partly an issue I had hoped to highlight in this post. I genuinely appreciate your perspective here, but I would challenge you to consider females who cannot “choose” to conform to gender stereotypes. Although I do not doubt some women choose to “break the rules,” some humans intrinsically exist outside of gender expectations. The choice to follow norms is a luxury. It is a privilege not everyone is afforded, and while I admit that de-gendering leadership (or society itself for that matter) is hardly an easy task, challenging and reshaping expectations is far easier than forcing a suppressive binary on a population which most individuals don’t wholly conform to anyways.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post. I definitely agree where you are coming from with the idea of “de-gendering leadership”. We do live in a society that creates and structures biases and prejudices largely based off gender. Even when compared to other attributes –age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class– gender trumps all. We are more likely to classify a person by their gender than be the color of our skin; However, the problem with the overwhelming classification by gender creates stark binaries that you mentioned (Muhr & Sullivan, 2013). It is interesting to see the pressure an individual faces when they do not fit the categories of male or female. Society becomes very confused and anxious by the ambiguity of the individual’s classification. We are eager to classify this person into a category for our peace of mind and clarity. It is also true that such pressures inhibit the leaders effectiveness because they become bogged down by social pressures (Muhr & Sullivan, 2013).

    So yes, I much agree that we need to focus on a “de-gendering” of leadership among many other things. Scholars who support the importance of female advantage in leadership are only continuing to the problem. Females do offer many unique traits and advantages to the leadership equation but so do males. Regardless of gender, leaders should be able to utilize a variety of skills and behaviors based off the needs of their followers and the context. Hopefully with time and practice, our society can start to move away from such stark gender binaries. I do not know how feasible this plan is, but I hope that through education we can open up society to new ideas. We need to support effective leadership regardless of the leader’s gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. We need to look at the leader through their ability to lead.

    Muhr, S. L., & Sullivan, K. R. (2013). None so queer as folk: Gendered expectations and transgressive bodies in leadership. Leadership, 9(3), 416-435.


  6. I completely agree with so much of this. I found myself walking into this class ready to celebrate the ways that women lead differently–as a woman myself, I was proud that we tend to have different styles of leading than men, and I thought it was something that shouldn’t be changed. Fast-forward to now: after we read that article that talked about degendering leadership, I was hooked. Now, when I read some of our readings, I can’t help but feel that the “great-woman theory” is applied to the detriment of women in many cases, because it still sets women aside from men–it separates them in ways I don’t necessarily think they should be. I found myself frustrated with the false pedestal women are put on as leaders–false, because while we are praised for communal values and that kind of leadership, people haven’t really begun to expect men to be the same. So, women are expected to be communal leaders–friendly, kind, gentle–and are punished if they are not, but men are still expected to be agentic. It makes me wonder, if “women’s leadership” is that great, why aren’t men expected to learn from it? Why is it that men do not have to act more communal to succeed, while women still have to make themselves act more “masculine” in order to earn promotions?

    When I was young (middle and high school age), there was a rumor spread that I was a lesbian. It really didn’t bother me that much as many of my friends were from the LBTQ community, but it was still a bit frustrating because people made assumptions about me that were not true (and that I don’t think should have been applied even if I were gay). I’m mentioning this because it impacted the expectations that people had of my leadership. I was the equipment manager of my marching band, a role that was already perceived as masculine, and I remember that I had to be very agentic in this role in order to get my followers to actually listen to me. In this role, I remember struggling with how I wanted to lead: all my life, I have been told that I was a woman and that women were soft and gentle, but people expected me to be agentic, tough, and use my “man voice” to get stuff done. Reading your post made me think about this–what if I didn’t have to feel that struggle? What if I did not have to decide if I wanted to be “feminine” or “masculine,” “communal” or “agentic,” but could be a blend of all of it? What if I didn’t have to limit myself to the expectations as a leader and could act freely as I needed to given the context? It seems a lot more reasonable than the constraining expectations we have now.

  7. When qualities such as intelligence, communal, confidence and assertiveness are gendered issues easily arise. Therefore it is so important to de-gender qualities of leadership. When these differences come into play based on gender one will always be seen as more esteemed than the other. The idea of leadership should be a universal nature that people can embody. The definition of leadership should not be either masculine or feminine but rather leadership. Overall the pure nature of leadership should not discriminate but rather unify.

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