Gendered Leadership Styles and the Climate for Women Leaders in Higher Education
By Mary Antonaros, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Michigan
As of 2006, nearly half of higher education’s executive leaders were at least sixty-one years old (American Council on Education 2007). With many of these presidents on the pathway to retirement, it is timely to revisit how gender influences leadership styles and perceptions of leader effectiveness—and with them, opportunities for advancement. Sinclair (1998) suggests that as women increasingly gain qualifications and career experience, more will enter senior leadership positions (a phenomenon she calls “the pipeline effect”). But women have yet to populate these positions in high numbers, and according to Deem (2003), that is because women’s shared characteristics (including leadership styles) have posed barriers to their success as leaders. But do the barriers lie in women’s leadership styles, or in how those styles are perceived by others?
Studies have noted that people hold generally negative perceptions of women as leaders, at least in part because of assumptions about gender and behavior (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, and van Engen 2003; Powell 1999; Powell and Butterfield 1979; Powell and Butterfield 1989). For example, behavior that seems assertive in a man can be perceived as abrasive in a woman, and female leaders must toe the line between seeming too feminine and seeming not feminine enough (Yang 2007). These findings suggest that the dearth of women in leadership positions may originate not in women’s behaviors, but in the way people perceive those behaviors in masculine and feminine terms (Kloot 2004). Gendered ideas about leadership may influence how women leaders are perceived, and thus how likely (or unlikely) they are to reach the highest leadership positions.
Gender Differences in Leadership Style
The literature reveals that women and men tend to exhibit different leadership styles in similar situations (Astin and Leland 1991; Bensimon and Neumann 1993; Billing and Alvesson 1994; Cantor and Bernay 1992; Eagly and Carli 2003; Helgesen 1995; Kezar 2000; Rosener 1990; Shakeshaft 1987; Shakeshaft 1999). For example, women tend to use relatively communal leadership styles (showing concern for others’ welfare), while men are more likely to use agentic leadership styles (characterized as assertive, controlling, and confident) (Bass 1990; Cann and Siegfried 1990; Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt 2001). Similarly, many studies find that women are more likely than men to use transformational (as opposed to transactional) leadership styles (Aldoory and Toth 2004; Bass and Avolio 1993; Druskat 1994; Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt 2001; Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, and van Engen 2003)*.
Transactional leadership is defined as occurring when leaders and followers exchange valued intangibles, which could be economic, personal, political, emotional, or psychological in nature (Avolio, Bass, and Jung 1999; Bass 1985; Lowe, Kroeck, and Slvasubramaniam 1996; Rowald and Rohmann 2009). Leaders and followers participate in a bargaining process rather than investing in relationships with greater enduring purpose. Transformational leadership, on the other hand, goes beyond meeting immediate needs and raises subordinates to new levels of morality and motivation (Bass 1997; Howell and Avolio 1993). Transformational leadership frequently emerges in times of rapid change and distress, and it often occurs in organizations that have unclear goals and structures, well-educated members, and high levels of trust (Basu and Green 1997).
In contrast to transactional leaders, who reinforce followers’ behavior in response to specific circumstances, transformational leaders inspire, intellectually stimulate, and consider the individual needs of their subordinates. Whether exercised in a directive or participatory manner, transformational leadership requires higher moral development. Women leaders tend to practice transformational leadership styles with more frequency than their male counterparts (Bass 1985; Eagly and Carli 2003), and the early research has therefore moderately linked transformational leadership to gender. In making these connections, the literature raises several pertinent questions: Do women lead differently than men? If so, what underlying variables influence these differences? How do perceptions of leadership style and leader effectiveness vary according to a leader’s gender?
Leadership Styles among College Presidents
In 2009, I conducted a study that examined gender differences in leadership styles and how these differences influenced perceived leader effectiveness for American college and university presidents. I designed the study around an original dataset that I created using two similar survey instruments. The first instrument collected self-reported data from college presidents, and the second collected self-reported data from those leaders’ followers (including vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, deans, tenure-track and other faculty members, and other campus administrators). I selected respondents from a variety of geographically dispersed institutions of differing types, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, highly selective research institutions, and comprehensive institutions.
Survey items explored the following topical areas:
- Leadership Style: Perceptions of the presidents’ leadership styles as viewed through the lens of transformational or transactional leadership.
- Leader Effectiveness: Perceptions of the presidents’ effectiveness as leaders, as measured by indicators such as employee satisfaction, the institution’s perceived educational quality, and perceived increases in the racial and ethnic diversity of students and faculty.
- Institutional Context: Perceptions of the institutional context, including the existence of a strong strategic plan as well as campus climate, campus culture, and economic stability.
- Leadership Perception: Perceptions of how men’s and women’s leadership styles differ by gender (for example, whether respondents believe that men tend to be more assertive leaders and women more relationship-oriented leaders).
- Demographics: Items such as respondents’ gender, race, ethnicity, position, and number of years spent at the institution.
Study results indicated that transformational leadership styles, which often involve communal leadership behaviors, had a high correlation with leader effectiveness when followers were rating both female and male presidents. Further, gender had a mild correlation with perceived effectiveness, with female presidents slightly more likely to be perceived as effective leaders by their followers. These results may seem surprising in light of the research indicating that women leaders are often perceived negatively. But they are in fact consistent with the literature showing that transformational leaders who exert communal leadership behaviors are usually viewed as more effective than their transactional counterparts who enact agentic behaviors (Omar and Davidson 2001).
Among both presidents and followers, men and women expressed differing views about transactional leadership styles and transformational leadership styles, suggesting that men and women may think differently about each leadership style. Men and women also greatly differed in the extent to which they perceived both transformational and transactional leadership styles as gendered.
One clear challenge in studying gender differences in leadership styles is that studies have traditionally used masculine behaviors to define the standards of effective leadership (Chliwniak 1997). In this framework, women who want to be effective leaders must adopt masculine-gendered behaviors to fit into the male-dominated hierarchies of the college and university setting (Acker 1989; Gutek 1985). People tend to expect women to simultaneously behave like typical—that is, male—leaders (authoritative, task oriented, and confident), yet also seem feminine (friendly, kind, and considerate). The more women deviate from common expectations for their gender, the more they experience prejudiced reactions that would not be directed toward their male counterparts (Eagly, Makhijani, and Klonsky 1992), who are generally more able to behave as typical leaders without penalty due to their gender.
My findings offer new insights in these areas, suggesting that gender has a mild correlation with perceived effectiveness. Female presidents are slightly more likely than their male counterparts to be perceived by their followers as effective leaders. Moreover, male and female presidents are viewed by their followers as enacting different leadership styles. In particular, male presidents are more often viewed as transactional leaders than their female counterparts.
My study has favorable implications for increasing the representation of women leaders in higher education. Although past assumptions about ideal leadership have privileged male-gendered leadership styles, female leaders may benefit from exercising the transformational styles of leadership with which they are often associated. Transformational leadership styles are correlated with more effective leadership, regardless of gender. Therefore—although past studies have painted women’s typical leadership styles as inconsistent with the demands of leadership positions—transformational styles may in fact enable women (and men) to excel as leaders.
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*Notable exceptions include Bartol and Martin (1986), Kolb (1997), and Kolb (1999), who found no differences by gender in those who enact transformational and transactional styles of leadership.