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Goodbye Charm School: The Case for More Women Leaders

If we want a more representative and effective government, we should consider backing away from the traditional male style of leadership.
 
 
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The following excerpt is from the chapter Women & Leadership in Pearls, Politics, and Power by Madeleine M. Kunin (Chelsea Green, 2008), and is reprinted here with permission from the publisher.

Leadership cookbooks that list the ingredients for effective leadership are more popular than ever. Almost every successful CEO has been impelled to divulge his secret formula. Most have bemoaned the lack of leadership "in our time," exemplified by Lee Iacocca's latest book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? :

Had enough? Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff.

Men throughout history have struggled to define leadership, benign and not benign, from Jesus to Hitler, from Aristotle to Machiavelli. Leadership meant male leadership. There was no other, unless we count Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I.

The omission of women from leadership books was not due to oversight or prejudice. It was understood that males "are superior, more powerful, and that they represent the 'norm.' ... In fact, sexist, patriarchal values are so deeply engrained in society's consciousness that they are largely invisible."

Today, women have assumed new leadership roles in politics, business, higher education, and other venues where they had never before appeared. "Firsts," such as the first woman president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, continue to make headlines. The seconds and thirds take longer. Surprisingly the figure is the same -- 16 percent -- for the number of women in the U.S. Congress and the number of women in top corporate positions. Why has progress been so slow? Do women have a different leadership style, and if so, does that help or hinder their advancement? Or are their leadership skills not sufficiently recognized by a business and political culture that remains predominantly male?

James MacGregor Burns, who has made a lifelong study of leadership, divides leadership into two types: transactional, which "depends on hierarchy ... it requires the ability to obtain results, to control through structures and processes"; and transformational leadership, "which occurs when a leader engages with a follower in such a way that both parties are raised to higher levels of motivation and morality with a common purpose." Transactional leadership is considered more masculine and transformational is considered more feminine. Some studies give women an advantage, others do not. Manning observes, "If transformational leadership is more androgynous, women managers may not have to cope with a perceived contradiction between being women and being effective leaders." If she is correct, women political leaders would be free to be themselves without feeling pressured to lead in the more traditional male style. A challenge for women in leadership is to develop a comfortable, loosely fitting leadership style that works, regardless of the culture.

Judith Rosener was one of the first to identify a distinctive female leadership style in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article, "Ways Women Lead." More than 170 scientific studies of gender and leadership style followed.

Sally Helgesen, in The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership , applauds women's leadership style as the panacea for the new, more complex economy. Peter Drucker noted that "Over time women have evolved a successful leadership style that rejects the military model in favor of supporting and empowering people." Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt, authors of Megatrends for Women , write that future management styles "uncannily match those of female leadership. Consultants tried to teach male managers to relinquish command-and-control mode. For women it was different, it just came naturally.'" If women are so good at relinquishing command and control, why aren't more of them in control?

One answer is that most institutions remain male dominated, and discrimination still exists. "Discriminatory attitudes are often veiled in inaccurate 'facts' about women's capacity for leadership. Women are presented as not aggressive enough, lacking the self-confidence required for the job, and not being serious enough about their careers to climb the corporate ladder."

Are women more likely to succeed when they portray aggression, confidence, and seriousness? Not necessarily. In the 1982 court case Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse , Ann Hopkins "had more billable hours than any other person proposed for partner that year, she had brought in business worth $25 million, her clients praised her, and her supporters recommended her as driven, hardworking and exacting." She was denied partnership because "she had interpersonal skills problems, overcompensated for being a woman," and needed a "course at charm school." The good news was that she won her case and that this happened twenty-five years ago. The story remains illustrative today because women leaders in business, politics, and elsewhere often face a no-win situation, damned if you do, and damned if you don't; they are either too tough or too soft. Kathleen Hall Jamieson identified this as the double bind in 1995.

Recently the double bind was defined as

... the clash ... between two sets of associations: communal and agentic. Women are associated with communal qualities, which convey a concern for the compassionate treatment of others. They include being especially affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind and sympathetic, as well as interpersonally sensitive, gentle and soft-spoken. In contrast, men are associated with agentic qualities that convey assertion and control. They include being especially aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self confident and forceful, as well as self-reliant and individualistic. The agentic traits are associated in most people's minds with effective leadership.

As a result, women leaders find themselves in a double bind. If they are highly communal, they may be criticized for not being agentic enough. But if they are highly agentic, they may be criticized for lacking communion. Either way, they may leave the impression that they don't have "the right stuff" for powerful jobs.

Catalyst, which has been tracking women in corporate leadership since 1995 when there was one woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, found in a recent study that now there are thirteen. At this rate of change it will take seventy-three years for women to reach parity with men on corporate boards. Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst's president, is puzzled by the numbers:

Women have been 45-50 percent of the labor force for decades and they have over 50 percent of managerial and professional positions for well over a dozen years. Companies need and want them. But at senior leadership levels, what is holding women back? There are people who would have you believe it's because women don't want to, or that they are not ambitious. There is no data supporting that. But there are barriers that they have to overcome that are more difficult than the barriers men face.

What has to change? The workplace culture and the expectations, both positive and negative and the stereotyping around women's capabilities -- the basic notion of what does a leader look like and what does a leader act like -- stereotyping on the part of both men and women. Smart companies recognize that talent is really important, for the most part leadership jobs don't require big bodies and a lot of brawn, they require brains and sensitivity and ability to collaborate, to think clearly, to problem solve."

How does Catalyst change leadership stereotypes? Lang described the process at Goldman & Sachs:

They reviewed their whole performance management process. They didn't change their standards, but they rewrote the script of how you conduct performance evaluations -- how you challenged feedback that is stereotypical in nature. So, if somebody says, she has sharp elbows, let's talk about how men have sharp elbows, sort of pushing back. They don't accept things like, she just doesn't fit.

The same stereotypes exist for women in political leadership, particularly at the executive level; creating awareness of how we and others stereotype women in leadership is a necessary step toward recognizing genuine leadership skills.

Political leadership has been defined as "the power a leader exercises through his or her relationships. The people with whom the political leader interacts, and how he or she interacts with those people, become essential in defining the strengths and weaknesses of any political leader."

Burns notes in Leadership: "The sharper the conflict, the larger the roles of leaders will tend to be." Burns created a distinction between leadership and power:

Leadership in short, is power governed by principle, directed toward raising people to their highest levels of personal motive and social morality, and tested by the achieving of results measured by original purpose. Power is different. Power manipulates people as they are; leadership as they could be. Power manages; leadership mobilizes. Power impacts, leadership engages. Power tends to corrupt, leadership to create.

When I asked Vermont Representative White for her definition, she replied after much thought, "A leader inspires and guides people to move in a direction or toward a goal in a way that allows them to claim it as their own."

Daniel Goleman's bestseller, Emotional Intelligence seems to play to women's strengths. He writes that leaders who have emotional intelligence and are

... high in emotional self awareness are attuned to their inner signals, recognizing how their feelings affect them and their job performance. ... typically know their limitations and strengths and exhibit a sense of humor about themselves. They exhibit a gracefulness in learning where they need to improve, and welcome constructive criticism and feedback. Accurate self-assessment lets a leader know when to ask for help and where to focus in cultivating new leadership strengths

The barriers between different kinds of leadership are breaking down:

It is argued that effective leadership requires a combination of traditional masculine (transactional, highly logical or authoritarian) behaviors and traditionally feminine (nurturing, democratic and relational) behaviors, as well as sex-neutral dimensions (inspirational, motivational, charismatic.

A meta-analysis of forty-five studies on whether women have a distinct leadership style concluded that that they do -- somewhat. Most women, however, combine both female and male styles. Women did distinguish themselves on one count -- they

... adopt a more participative and collaborative style than men typically favor. The reason for this difference is unlikely to be genetic. Rather, it may be that collaboration can get results without seeming particularly masculine. As women navigate their way through the double bind, they seek ways to project authority without relying on the autocratic behaviors that people find so jarring in women. A viable path is to bring others into decision making and to lead as an encouraging teacher and positive role model.

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This gender observation is good news for the rejuvenation of democracy. If more women participate in government, they may be more participative and collaborative than men, which could result in a more representative and effective government.

For such a rejuvenation to occur, and for women to take on their rightful leadership roles in government, obstacles remain to be overcome. The gains many women believe were made in the past several decades are not as secure and as widely accepted as we would be led to believe. In fact, the bias faced by today's women remains every bit as demeaning and effective as it was for their foremothers.

Gender Bias
Given the gains women have made, the perception is that the bad old days are gone; there are laws that protect women from discrimination, and there is a culture of political correctness that constrains gender bias.

Direct discrimination is more rare than it once was, but the message that women are inferior to men remains deeply imbedded in both men's and women's psyches. It ranges from the Catholic Church's prohibition against women priests, to the practice of Sharia law by some Muslims, to Orthodox Judaism, and to the controversy within the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women priests. One example of unconscious gender bias was revealed when some symphony orchestras decided to change the way they conducted auditions. To make the competition for orchestra seats gender neutral, the musician was asked to sit behind a curtain that was long enough to cover her or his shoes. The result? Many more female musicians made the cut.

Science, a field where objectivity would seem more assured, provides another example. In a study done in 1968 and replicated in 1983 by Jennifer Freyd of the University of Oregon,

... college students were asked to rate identical articles by specific criteria. The authors' names attached to the articles were clearly male or female, but were reversed for each group of raters: what one group thought had been written by a male, the second thought had been written by a female, and vice versa. Articles supposedly written by women were consistently ranked lower than when the very same articles were thought to have been written by a male.

Freyd writes that gender bias and discrimination against women take many forms, from sexual harassment to the "more ubiquitous and insidious problem of subtle and unconscious sexism impacting daily life."

Further, she writes:

One error people make is assuming that gender bias and discrimination require a conscious sexist ideology or a conscious attempt to discriminate against women. In fact, however, psychological science has overwhelmingly demonstrated that sexist behaviors, gender bias, and discrimination can and do occur without these conscious beliefs or attempts to discriminate.

A second error people often make is believing that discrimination is "out there" but not "here."

A third error is the belief that bias, though present, is negligible in effect. The problem with this is that a large number of nearly negligible effects all working in the same direction can easily cumulate to very significant aggregate discrimination.

How much do women experience gender bias in politics? Answers vary widely to this question. "I don't belong to the women's caucus, and I don't identify as a feminist. I feel 100 percent accepted everywhere I work and an equal participant. I don't feel we need to break barriers. I have never been sexually harassed. I never feel like there have been obstacles in my way because I am a woman," Vermont Representative Patti Komline (R) told me.

Vermont Representative Rachel Weston (D), the youngest member of the House, had a different experience. When she first introduced herself to one of the older representatives, "who could have been my father," he told her he would have liked to have been introduced to her with her clothes off.

Alaska minority leader Beth Kurttula said women still have to work harder, and says,

I still feel the sexism. I think it's a little tougher for women. When I don't raise my voice people perceive that as being too nice ... they perceive you as weak when they say, "Oh, you are too nice. What they really misperceive is the strength that comes through calmness. They think that if you are not a screamer, if you aren't swearing and fighting, you are not a strong person. There is a lot of pressure on you to be someone who you aren't and to stoop down to the level that some people do.

Most women in public office agree that gender has an impact on their leadership style and on the policies they promote. They often offer a much different perspective, incorporate different leadership styles, and have different ways of resolving conflict.

That was the gender difference detected by McCaskill. "I think that women, generally, are more focused on trying to find common ground." When she and the governor had a conflict, "the women wanted the conflict between me and the governor resolved. It was uncomfortable to them. Men enjoy the fight, and I think most women enjoy solving the problem. Although I have to admit, for me, I love to win, and I hate to lose. So there is that competitiveness I have that I think is healthy."

The mothering role, in many women's experience, influences their leadership style and substance. In a working paper, "Leadership: What's Motherhood Got to Do with It?" Sumru Erkut, PhD, writes:

... in contemporary U.S. society, leadership continues to be viewed as a masculine activity. Yet, in a study of 60 women leaders (Erkut & Winds of Change Foundation, 2001) close to 40 percent of prominent women from a variety of fields spontaneously made reference to motherhood when describing a good leader or leadership training.

One woman was quoted in this article as saying,

One of the best training grounds for leadership is motherhood and if you can manage a group of small children, you can manage a group of bureaucrats. It's almost the same process. ... It's partly team building. And a family is partly team building, too. Getting kids to work together and to feel the family feeling and not hitting each other, and so forth.

When Speaker Terie Norelli was asked how she managed 400 state legislators (New Hampshire has the 2nd largest legislative body in the world), she said her deputy managed five-day care centers, an obvious qualification. "She is very calm. She doesn't try to whip people into shape," she said.

Madeleine M. Kunin was Vermont's first and, to date, only female governor as well as the first Jewish woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state.