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Leading ladies: The role of femininity in effective leadership

Jay Polish* says research shows it’s not just women or feminine folks who prefer ‘feminine’ leadership styles.


Photo: Ridofranz

Being a good leader is often shown the way it is on the satirical drama, Succession: the top dog, up in his office, barking efficient orders at his staff.

And yes, the use of ‘he/him’ pronouns instead of gender-neutral ones are intentional here.

Cold and removed, top-down, masculinised styles of leadership are often unquestioned as the most ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ way to run an organisation.

When women and feminine people demonstrate these distant, top-dog styles of leadership, they are often criticised as a ‘b*tch’.

But feminised styles of leadership, including emphasising cooperation over competition and interspersing positive feedback with constructive criticism, are actually more effective when it comes to what makes an effective leader.

Instead of managerial styles that emphasise competition and getting ahead by any means necessary, people tend to thrive with leadership styles characterised by training and instruction accompanied by positive feedback, according to a study published this year in the journal Behavioural Sciences.

The study found that even beyond the office, people’s motivation to accomplish task-oriented assignments was higher when instruction was tied to positive feedback.

This idea that there are certain feminine leadership styles, associated with compassion and cooperation, has deep roots in gendered socialisation, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Mindfulness.

No matter their assigned gender at birth, men tend to have higher levels of self-compassion than women, the study found, “suggesting that socialisation plays a strong role” in how people regard compassion toward themselves and others.

And, the study further concluded, people who are comfortable with the feminine and masculine parts of themselves tend to have the highest levels of self-compassion.

This self-compassion, the study suggested, can translate into treatment of others and therefore, into gendered leadership styles.

And it’s not just women or feminine folks who prefer “feminine” leadership styles, either.

According to a 2008 study published in The Spanish Journal of Psychology, people of any gender prefer managers with stereotypically feminine leadership styles, regardless of the manager’s gender.

And cooperative styles of leadership have been feminised and subsequently dismissed as ‘weak’ or ‘soft’.

The alternative for women and feminine bosses?

Be called a ‘b*tch’ for being ‘frigid’ or ‘cold’.

In the midst of this gendering, it is of course important to remember that just because something is feminised in a patriarchal society does not mean that it’s actually specific to women or feminine folks.

Sure enough, a 2017 study published in the journal PLoS One found that among the few women leaders in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) fields, there was no consistency in leadership style.

In other words, women unsurprisingly do not all perform leadership the same way.

But no matter how effective your style of mentorship and leadership, it may not be enough to advance other marginalised employees in the workforce.

According to a 2019 article published in the journal Academic Medicine, mentorship alone is not enough to advance the careers of marginalised workers in white, male-dominated professions.

The study concluded that financial sponsorship, in addition to personalised leadership development, is also necessary to promote the advancement of marginalised people.

And this makes sense, considering that economic inequities for marginalised potential employees can make it all but impossible to take on the unpaid internships and other such unpaid or undercompensated labour expected of new employees.

It’s important, then, to consider the ways that the socialisation of empathy, compassion, and open communication plays into cooperative and positive reinforcement behaviour in leadership styles.

Of course, boys and men need to be better socialised and trained in empathetic leadership, just as people who aren’t cis men need to be given structural access to leadership roles.

And anyone concerned that empathetic, ‘feminine’ leadership styles will kill an organisation’s bottom line can rest assured that, according to science, leading with cooperation and empathy is extremely effective.


Dr Jay (Jenn) Polish is a lifestyle news writer at Bustle.

This article first appeared at www.bustle.com