The ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ Sides of Leadership and Culture: Perception vs. Reality

Workers’ general notions about the effectiveness of male and female managers can be as important as their actual leadership abilities or business results, according to a session on gender and leadership at a recent Wharton Executive Development program entitled, "Women in Leadership: Legacies, Opportunities & Challenges."

As a result, women executives need to be exceptionally aware of their own leadership styles and strengths — as well as changes underway in their organizations — in order to make an impact, noted program director Anne Cummings, a former Wharton management professor who is now a professor of business administration at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.

During another session, Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade looked at the critical role the development of a strong corporate culture has played in the success of such companies as Mary Kay Inc., the country’s second biggest direct seller of beauty products.

Cummings began her session on gender perceptions by asking the women executives attending the program to brainstorm a list of words describing female leaders. Among the words that surfaced: multi-tasking, emotional, empathetic, strong, intuitive, compassionate, relationship building, verbal, consensus building, collaborative and gossipy.

Then Cummings asked for a list of words associated with being a male leader. Strong, arrogant, intelligent, ego-driven, bravado, powerful, dominant, assertive, single tasking, focused, competitive, stubborn, physical, self-righteous and direct made the list. One woman marveled at the way men are capable of having an argument at work, then go out for a beer together as if nothing had ever happened. "Women hold a grudge," she said. "Men are passive-aggressive," countered another. "They sit in the bushes and wait." "Men have a sense of entitlement," said yet another executive. "It’s a given that they will be successful."

Cummings said that over the past five years, when she has asked for this list at similar seminars, the descriptions have become more gender-neutral. "The notion of what makes an effective leader is changing, and you will find both [traditionally defined] ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ components," she said.

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