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Northeastern University Press
Women on Power: Leadership Redefined

Women on Power: Leadership Redefined


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ISBN-13: 9781555534790
Publisher: Northeastern University Press
Publication date: 06/07/2001
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sue J.M. Freeman is a Psychologist and Professor of Education and Child Study at Smith College. Susan C. Bourque is Esther Booth Wiley Professor of Government at Smith College. Christine M. Shelton is Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Studies and co-director of the Project on Women and Social Change at Smith College. Jill Ker Conway is President Emerita of Smith College and a visiting scholar in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Read an Excerpt

Women on Power

Leadership Redefined
By Sue Joan Mendelson Freeman

Northeastern University Press

Copyright © 2001 Sue Joan Mendelson Freeman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1555534791

Chapter One

Women at the Top:
"You've Come a Long Way, Baby"

    Sue J. M. Freeman


I have been interested in the psychology of women for more than twenty-five years now. My early studies focused on how women define the moral dilemmas that they faced in their own lives. I continued this work at Smith in the early 1980s with corporate women who were pioneering managers in their companies. To my surprise I drew a blank when I questioned these women managers about moral dilemmas they had faced, but I did learn a lot about how they thought about themselves and the direction that their lives had taken. These data resulted in a book, Managing Lives: Corporate Women and Social Change, and a shift in my perspective. Now I was interested particularly in how women were incorporating the new possibilities for work in their self-concepts and life plans. In many ways I could identify with both the first group of women interviewed specifically about their lived moral dilemmas and with this generation ofwomen managers. We had grown up with traditional sex-typed norms and expectations, which then changed with the most recent women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I, like the women interviewed for my studies, had radically revised my own conceptions of self and life path during this time of social change.

As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, it became apparent that women's choices were not as open-ended as we had hoped. They had encountered a "glass ceiling," such that their advancement up the corporate ladder was halted well below the top executive levels. Now I wanted to study how women might overcome this latest obstacle, how they might assume the top leadership positions in business. In my view, some of the same old stereotypes were keeping women at bay, and I wished to study the paradoxes and possibilities for women now. Women were ready and wanting to take the helm at the same time that they were reclaiming home and hearth. The essay represents some of my thinking and findings about these seemingly contradictory trends.

The title of this essay stands as a metaphor for women's current status as leaders in the world of business. For what does it conjure but the savvy, sophisticated young woman who has achieved freedom and independence up to a point? The sentence "You've come a long way, baby" is incomplete without the implied "but you still have a long way to go." The advertisement from which it comes hails the triumphs of the most recent women's liberation movement, asserting that women have come so much into their own that they are now entitled to a cigarette designed just for them. The myriad messages include explicit victory and implicit threat; women are issued a special invitation to join the world of men and smokes (and these days cigars included), a health-endangering world, while remaining an infantilized icon called "baby." Moreover, the female pictured is sexy and slim like her newly fashioned cigarette, so the old rules for female image and role remain clearly in place.

    So it is with women and business. Women have come a long way toward assumption of leadership in the business world, but the messages about their achievements and continued progress are many and mixed. On the one hand, women now account for more than 40 percent of corporate middle managers and are expected, in conjunction with minorities, to constitute the majority of the work force in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, women account for little more than 5 percent of top executive positions. Considerable commentary on the "glass ceiling" notwithstanding, the media have reflected an ambivalence about women's extradomestic place. Simultaneous to the publicity about successful female inroads in male business bastions are stories about threatened stress and disease effects for women akin to those suffered by men engaged in the public sphere of commerce. In addition, accounts of women's exodus from the demands of corporate management and retreats to domesticity can subtly reinforce long-standing notions that women's place is indeed in the home. Portraits of women relinquishing high-power careers and resuming full responsibility for husband, home, and children flourish alongside stories bemoaning the disintegration of the American family and its dire consequences. For women aspiring to success in business, forecasts are frequent of untold obstacles in the form of discrimination, harassment, and glass ceilings. Although they are no longer to be called "baby," successful women continue to encounter cultural confusion and resistance to their achievements and to their desire for more.

    It is testament to women's determination and ability that they have made as much progress as they have in the past two decades. A pioneering 1977 study of women in corporations, Rosabeth Kanter's Men and Women of the Corporation detailed through participant observation the particular strains a first or only woman encounters in the male work environment. A "token" female's heightened visibility fosters a skewed attribution system whereby luck is credited with her successes and women as a class are faulted for her missteps. Kanter predicted that increased numbers alone could correct biased perceptions and educate for appropriate behavior. Her apt counsel included a focus on the context of gendered business transactions, indicating that a changed corporate context can foster revised behavior, expectations, and perceptions. Until recently a plausible explanation for women's absence from top executive posts has been their sparse numbers at lower management ranks. This "pipeline" or critical mass theory, however, has lost credibility, as women represent a substantial proportion of management in American companies today; their numbers and longevity are there, with women now in place for better than two and a half decades.

Women's Future as Business Leaders

    What does the future hold for women in American businesses? Predictions cannot be made without considering the shape of the businesses themselves. In the wake of the 1980s boom, American corporations have had to adjust both their size and shape. Corporate change has been characterized by downsizing, whereby departments and employees have been eliminated or consolidated, and by flattening of the pyramid of managerial hierarchy. As a consequence, there are fewer layers of management and fewer managers. In this climate of reduction in labor force and shaken job security at every level, it would be reasonable to conclude that women's newcomer status would make them the most vulnerable. But to the contrary, women have been touted as possessing the very skills critical to American corporate survival as a top competitor in the world marketplace. The reality of a global economy has heightened corporate America's competition; the threat to its position is so palpable that this entrenched system has approached an uncharacteristic overhaul in philosophy and practice. In their search for enhanced effectiveness, American corporations have looked to the models of other countries and have embraced, at least in theory, a decentralized, participatory operation that is more responsive to consumer needs and preferences. Women's management style has been described as naturally suited to these new directions.

    These trends raise several questions. First, how much change is feasible for large, complex organizations whose practices have become entrenched over decades? While the business literature is replete with exhortation toward new ideas and practices, what is the reality on the shop floor and in executive offices? It seems likely that women's experiences in corporations are not unlike those elsewhere, for example, academe, politics, sport. In academe, women are clustered in the part-time and lower ranks; in politics, they are most visible at the local level, considerably less at the national level. In sport, the explosion of female participation has not infused the leadership level. In business, the glass ceiling and women's exodus to independent enterprise have highlighted their stalled positions at the middle ranks. Like our essay metaphor, the message is mixed. Business needs and celebrates women, but limits remain on how far they have been allowed to go.

    A second question revolves around the notion that women, by their nature, possess managerial skills particularly suited to the proposed new corporate philosophy. Sex differences in managerial style, as in many other dimensions, have been widely researched and generally found to be insignificant. Yet these findings and commensurate field experiences are for the most part ignored; the managerial styles alleged of women and men are emphasized according to the needs and purposes of the particular time and place. For women in business, this represents a conundrum. The customary struggle has been to achieve equality in access to opportunity; that is, women desire consideration in hiring and promotion that men have enjoyed. Now women are said to be more suited than their male counterparts for the new management requirements. This potential shift to better-than-equal status could be seductive for women, who had previously been stereotyped as unsuitable to management. It is stereotype that labeled female traits as unsuitable to management, however, and it is stereotype that makes those traits currently desirable. It could be said that the traits have not changed, but their perception and interpretation have. If this is the case, then women (and men) continue to be stereotyped, and acceptance of the current assessment would likely result only in short-lived progress for women.

    If women are especially suited to the new corporate management, why have they not been promoted to highest executive positions? One response could be that corporate change is slow in coming, and women are more ready than their organizations to move forward. Therefore, in the absence of recognition and promotion, women change jobs or open their own businesses. Another might be that while corporations have changed size and shape, established practices and perceptions with regard to women remain resistant to revision. In that case, women are retained as managers but kept from advancing to top executive levels. The solid number of women managers and sparse number of women executives attest to this practice, but the reasons still elude us. One possible explanation could lie in the distinction between management and leadership found in the literature and in practice.

Manager versus Leader

    It is clear that women have access to management positions almost on a par with men in American corporations but very little representation at the top executive levels. Women are seen as managers but not leaders. Men are seen as both, and curiously, men can rise to executive levels from a management track, whereas women who do reach top positions often do not follow the customary male path. Distinctions between management and leadership drawn in the literature seem to render the two as distinct continua rather than simply different points on the same continuum. If management and leadership are distinct constellations of skills and tasks, then managers of either sex should experience a glass ceiling between their current positions and the executive suite. As it is, only women do. This is not to say that all male managers advance to leadership positions, but 95 percent of those who do are men.

    Are women more suited to manage and men more suited to lead? The early discussions of leadership types do not include gender; most established leadership theory seemed to assume a male paradigm without reference to the sex of the leader. This is not surprising if leadership is understood as a form of social authority, traditionally a male monopoly? Because of its importance in so many aspects of social and political life, leadership itself has been a subject of long-standing fascination across disciplines. That study cannot be totally without personal referent, however implicit, since theory is often derived from empirical example, and in the case of leadership that example has been male. Hence the "great man" theory of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries imbues certain people (men) with a destiny by birth to lead. Max Weber's charismatic leader is held "apart from ordinary men [sic]," and predominantly male CEOs elucidate the idea of transformational leadership. These notions paint a broad picture of an inspirational leader who arouses intense commitment to values and goals; the focus is on personal traits rather than behaviors that are more frequently associated with managing. A brief review of what constitutes leadership and how it is distinguished from management may be instructive for our understanding of women's current status in business and their future leadership prospects.

    The differentiation of managers and leaders in behavior, personality, needs, and attitudes was first discussed in the business context in 1977 by Abraham Zaleznik in an award-winning Harvard Business Review paper. Whereas managers enjoyed working with people and maintaining order, leaders were seen as loners, risk takers, and visionaries. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the political scientist James McGregor Burns distinguished between transformational and transactional leaders. Transactional leaders, who correspond to Zaleznik's manager, are engaged in an exchange relationship with subordinates where the focus is on teamwork, task accomplishment, and problem solving. Transformational leaders tap into followers' motives and seek to engage the full person of the follower; here the process of intellectual and emotional stimulation can convert followers into leaders and leaders into moral agents. Bernard Bass operationalized Burns's concept of transformational leadership for organizational settings as the ability to arouse followers emotionally and inspire them to greater effort and accomplishment.

    The characteristics of a transformational leader resemble those earlier attributed to the charismatic leader. The latter derives his authority not from position, rules, or traditions but from followers' faith in his gift of "exceptional powers and qualities." This highly confident leader is wholly involved in his vision of change and inspires others to pursue his articulated goals. Followers are transformed by a leader who engages them intellectually and emotionally, acts on their belief system, and stirs their values. Through attachment to and trust in the leader, followers become strongly committed and motivated toward the mission; self-esteem and aspiration are elevated, as they are empowered by the leader's faith in their abilities and by group cohesion based on shared beliefs. The relationship "binds leader and follower together in mutual and continuing pursuit of a higher purpose."

    Mutual involvement in a higher purpose or vision frequently is a response to a felt need for change. The origins of charismatic leadership were said to be a revolution against the tyranny of tradition. Stagnation or discontent with the established order provides a ripe context for the ascendance of a charismatic or transformational leader, a context that has evoked uncertainty and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The leader perceives opportunity in a crisis situation and mobilizes human minds and emotions toward his vision of change. The leader instills faith in followers, and their consequent empowerment reduces helplessness and instability. Thus, Weber envisioned charismatic leadership as transitory, creating and institutionalizing new orders. If power is vested solely in the leader, however, visionary leadership could create a system that fails to function in the leader's absence. Bernard Bass points out that the most significant component of transformational leadership may be charisma, but that charisma alone may not be transforming enough to sustain and institutionalize change in business organizations. The charismatic leader may encourage followers to adopt only his worldview, but the transformational leader seeks to instill in followers the propensity to continue to question views established by the leader. One solution is to lead others to lead themselves.

    Although classic leadership theory and our enduring cultural images seem to perpetuate the association of male with charismatic or transformational leadership, recent studies have found no difference between men and women as transformational or transactional leaders. That is, subordinates rate the actual leadership behaviors of their male and female supervisors quite similarly. Through emotional arousal of values and motives, leaders inspire followers to work in the interest of the company as opposed to the self. The strength of charismatic/transformational leadership has been endorsed as an ideal type and found universally superior to transactional leadership. Transformational leadership is characterized cross-culturally by integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, team orientation, decisiveness, intelligence, and win-win problem solving. These descriptors are not gender specific.

    There is considerable evidence, however, that stereotypes for male and female leaders remain robust, and these are almost invariably to the detriment of women. To further complicate matters, the nature of the stereotyping differs by gender, wherein males and females may hold differing expectations of male and female leadership, and those expectations may in turn affect perceptions of a leader and ultimately his or her effectiveness. For males, perceptions of effective leadership are associated with men and not with women. Females express more mixed reactions; depending on the circumstance, though, they frequently express a preference for a male leader. In the absence of information or experience to the contrary, people act in accordance with their stereotyped perceptions, and women are less likely to be chosen by men for leadership positions.

    Although it is the case that men dominate the upper echelons of leadership and are in the position of selecting their successors, these extant leaders are certainly not invariably transformational or charismatic. Studies of charismatic leadership have taken men as their subject, but male leadership is not ipso facto charismatic or transformational. One cannot assume that a given leader is charismatic or transformational by virtue of his sex or assumed sex-related inherent characteristics. Men may dominate top leadership but not necessarily because they are "great men."

    Since the "great man" theory, wherein leaders are born rather than made, failed to fully explain leadership, the "big bang" notion promoted the idea that great events can make leaders out of otherwise ordinary people. That is, situations and followers can combine to promote a leader where there had been none. Within a complex context of apathy, increasing change, and uncertainty, this leader would be required to instill vision, meaning, and trust in followers. Although women were unlikely to fit the "great man" paradigm, they might better qualify for the "big bang" theory's emergent leader. The only real difference between these two theories, however, is the origin or source of leadership; "great men" are born leaders, "big bang" creates leaders. The actual leadership characteristics associated with each of these theories are indistinguishable, so that even though the "big bang" seemingly opens the door to women, in practice it continues to be men who emerge as leaders in organizations needing change.

    While leaders are primarily concerned with macrocosmic purposes and directions of the organization, managers are more intimately involved with daily work functions. Paradoxically, followers are more personally engaged with leaders while directly supervised by managers. Leaders may be physically distant, but they have a hold on followers psychologically, as their message centers on needs, values, aspirations. Leaders articulate ideals and overall direction; managers involve employees in short-range decision making and provide feedback for continued learning. Managers are highly skilled problem solvers and staff experts who aim for teamwork and consistently stable working relations. Responsible for the more immediate task accomplishment, managers remove obstacles and support the development of specific competencies required for effective performance. Ideally, an effective manager promotes employees' development through challenging tasks and increasingly autonomous working conditions.

    Thus, managing involves know-how and problem solving, whereas leading calls for knowing why and problem finding. Leaders empower through direction and inspiration, managers through action and participation. The distinction between top- and lower-level management is strong even cross-culturally, whereby innovation, vision, persuasion, long-term orientation, diplomacy, and courage are associated with top levels, while lower-level managers are team builders, participative, and attentive to subordinates. Leaders need managers for implementation. A leadership typology attributed to Abraham Zaleznik and Manfred Kets de Vries describes the "maximum man," who leads by charisma and builds the institution, leaving the dailies to the "minimum man," or consensus builder. The "maximum man" is an innovator with high self-confidence, conviction, and independence; people are drawn to his strength and vision. The "minimum man" or modern manager is concerned with peers' opinions and prefers egalitarian relations to distant, exalted ones. The latter resemble the qualities frequently associated with female managers.

    If we examine the qualities and behaviors associated with managers and leaders, respectively, we see once again that many of those stereotypically touted as women's talents line up in the manager column rather than the leader column. For example, Zaleznik's manager, as opposed to the solitary leader, prefers to work with people and enables others through a process of coordinating and balancing. While a leader's sense of self is separate from the environment and his identity is derived from personal mastery of events, a manager's sense of self is strongly connected to the environment and his identity depends on roles and memberships. This is reminiscent of the developmental tasks psychologists have traditionally attributed to males and females, such that males are more concerned with separation and individuation, females with connection and care. In the Burns schema, a manager (transactional leader) is involved with the task, its people, and its accomplishment; a short-range focus on problem solution seeks conformity from and smooth, steady relations with subordinates. On the other hand, a (transformational) leader is involved with the ideals and vision of the institution; a long-range focus may create problems and intense and turbulent feelings in subordinates. In times of turmoil and rapid change for American business through globalization, there is a call for a leadership that breaks with tradition and envisions unforeseen opportunity and unconventional strategies. There is evidence that in the cases of successfully managed companies transformational leaders have arisen, instilled purpose, shaped values, and engendered excitement. In fact, the potency and effectiveness of transformational leadership have now been documented across a variety of enterprises and even cross-culturally. Are these emergent leaders inevitably male?

    Historically, leadership theory and studies have been unconcerned with gender. Both the form and content of leadership literature, however, reflected the assumption of a male leader. Even if we eschew the "great man" notion and the idea that leadership resides in personal attributes, we are still left with a view that depends on the relation between leaders' attributes and followers' needs, beliefs, and perceptions. If leaders and followers must share basic beliefs and values to validate the leaders' power to lead, then those values and beliefs are likely to be gender related. In the case of transformational leadership, a powerful and charismatic leader prompts followers to transcend self-interest to embrace the values, mission, and future trajectory of the organization. This process is facilitated by followers' high level of personal identification with their leaders, and such identification more readily occurs with gender similarity. If leadership is less one-sided and more of a transaction between leaders and followers such that a unity of focus is established, it is likely that the majority of male executives will perceive leadership in their male, rather than female, colleagues. Female leaders have been the recipients of more negative social interpretations and responses. Indeed, males' familiarity and comfort with other males are repeatedly cited as the primary obstacles to women seeking top corporate executive positions. If nothing else, men have the weight of time and tradition shaping perceptions and long-standing practice.

Gender and Leadership

    We have seen that several theories of leadership have been developed since Weber's original treatise. We have seen also that gender considerations have not ordinarily been part of these discussions, but a shift precipitated by the women's movement has brought formerly held assumptions under scholarly scrutiny here as elsewhere. Hence, several studies of gender and leadership have emerged during the last decade. These studies might reveal if and how gender intersects with leadership and what the implications might be for women in business.

    Current understandings of leadership could be termed contextual, that is, personal requirements for leadership are examined with reference to the particular circumstances calling for its emergence. Thus, a leader's effectiveness depends on situational elements, including those of the constituent followers. In business, situational requirements can vary enormously from one industry to another and among companies within industries where components such as size, culture, and philosophy must be taken into account. Moreover, in today's global business environment, cultural variables such as individualism versus collectivism and culturally endorsed implicit leadership theories may interact to change significantly the leadership-follower equation. Similarly, companies' constituencies, including their leaders, contribute to their diverse climates; variation among companies in working conditions conducive to female opportunity is generally acknowledged and openly discussed in articles and books. However, the expansion of our understanding of leadership to include race and gender diversity is in a fledgling stage.

    How does a contextual concept of leadership affect women? Surely it would seem to afford more opportunity than the formerly held "great man" theory, whose title accurately reflected the idea that it was men, not women, who were born leaders. Opportunity could be equalized by the notion that leadership consists of a set of behaviors, learned and learnable, that are largely defined by contextual needs. That is, unless one sex is deemed more capable of particular kinds of learning or more commonly associated with certain contexts. Unfortunately for women, these two conditions are extant in business.

    First, the question of context. Variation among industries and companies notwithstanding, for most of its history American business has been a male preserve. Men have populated the blue- and white-collar ranks of worker, manager, executive, while women have been consigned to the pink-collar clerical world of considerable responsibility with little authority. Over the past two decades, women's unprecedented inroads into management have changed the complexion of American business; in addition, today's global economy demands fresh ideas and practices. Although women are said to possess a management style suited to today's business demands, perceptions of leaders and followers alike linger behind research and experiential evidence of female suitability for top leadership positions. That is, people's long-standing perceptions of male leadership in general, and in business particularly, could he a major obstacle to women's entry to the executive suite. Moreover, stereotypic notions that attribute emotional reactivity and relationship priority to women may render them lacking the aptitude supposedly required for the rational, objective decisiveness required for business leadership. Thus, people may not readily perceive women as leaders, and they may continue to associate female traits as incompatible with the kinds of learning leadership requires.

    The relevance of perception and attribution to interpersonal relations has long been recognized in psychology. An early and startling study discovered in 1970 that mental health professionals characterized, through adjective attribution, the "healthy female" and the mental patient in similar terms that were significantly different from the "healthy male" and "healthy person." The next two decades in psychology saw a burgeoning study of so-called sex differences, their validity and import. While we continue to struggle with what constitute real and imagined sex differences, we have established a clear distinction between sex and gender. Sex is understood as biologically based, while gender is defined as the sociocultural understanding of the sexes. In business, therefore, even though we repeatedly find little or no sex differences in leadership style, gender-based expectations and perceptions seem to persist.

    A brief examination of the components of effective business leadership and their connection to gender perceptions will reveal some psychological obstacles to female leadership. Regarding leadership effectiveness, two major categories of behavior are generally used by subordinates in judging their leaders. One, called consideration, is concerned with employee-oriented interpersonal relations, while the other, initiating structure, centers on task accomplishment. Both stereotypic expectation and research findings corroborate the respective feminine and masculine associations with each of these independent dimensions. In field studies, however, male and female business leaders have not been found to differ significantly in their behavior, nor are their subordinates differentially satisfied with them; the sex of the leader does not significantly influence either leader behavior or subordinate satisfaction. When sex differences are found they are in laboratory experiments with non-employees making judgments about imaginary leaders. Thus, under conditions of ambiguous of insufficient information and experience, people fill in the gaps with stereotypic gender expectations and their implicit leadership theories.


Excerpted from Women on Power by Sue Joan Mendelson Freeman Copyright © 2001 by Sue Joan Mendelson Freeman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Amazons and Warriors: The Image of the Powerful Woman (Jill Ker Conway, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Smith College)

Leadership and Power: New Conceptions (Sue J.M. Freeman and Susan C. Bourque, both Smith College)

Theoretical Issues

Women at the Top — You've Come a Long Way, Baby. . . (Sue J.M. Freeman, Smith College)

The Problem of Silence in Feminist Psychology (Maureen A. Mahoney, Smith College)

Political Leadership for Women — Redefining Power and Reassessing the Political (Susan C. Bourque, Smith College)

Leadership, Sport, and Gender (Mary Jo Kane, University of Minnesota)

Historical Case Studies — Starting a Movement

Knowledge is Power: Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (Barbara A. Brehm, Smith College)

From Beijing to Atlanta and Beyond: The “Quiet” Revolution (Christine M. Shelton, Smith College)

Maternal Politics — Global Perspectives

Marching Along with Mothers and Children (Myron Peretz Glazer, Smith College, and Penina Migdal Glazer, Hampshire College)

Mothers as Leaders: The Madres Veracruzanas and the Mexican Antinuclear Movement (Velma Garcia-Gorena, Smith College)

Professional Enclaves Open to Women

Women in Veterinary Medicine: Past Achievements and Future Challenges (Miriam Slater, Hampshire College)

Intersections: Women’s Sport Leadership and Feminist Praxis (Carole A. Oglesby, Temple University)

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