Why is Leadership Still Widely Associated with Masculinity?

Samantha Bender, Assistant News Editor

While we have recently seen an uprise in women leaders, masculine traits are still widely associated with leadership. 

In a study conducted by Andrea Vial of New York University and Jaime Napier of New York University-Abu Dhabi, it was found that people expect leaders to have stereotypical masculine traits. The study assessed men’s and women’s idea of a great leader with a focus on gendered attributes in two studies using different methodologies. 

In the first study, participants were asked to design their “ideal leader.” It was found that feminine characteristics, such as communality were valued in leadership. This came only after meeting more stereotypical masculine requirements of the role, such as competence and assertiveness, were stated.

More so, it found that men, in particular, preferred leaders who were more competent, while women desired leaders who could keep negative stereotypical masculine traits, like arrogance, in check.

Throughout the second study, it was examined men and women beliefs about the traits that were most important for them to personally succeed in a leadership role. It found that both viewed agentic traits as more important than communal traits, which the researchers suggest “may illuminate the continued scarcity of women at the very top of organizations.” 

According to a population survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprised only about 28 percent of chief executive roles in 2017 and a mere 5 percent when considering the largest, most profitable firms in the United States.

But why are the traits associated with leadership viewed as masculine? What gives traits a gender?

I have heard every explanation in the book as to why women are underrepresented in leadership roles or are incapable of such responsibility — among them being that they are not capable or interested, they do not possess the characteristics needed to be an effective leader, or that they are “too soft.”

But where have people gotten this notion that women are so weak and fragile? What makes them inferior to men?

I think it is time that we take a step back and open up our minds. It is about time that we get rid of the idea that women cannot be strong and assertive, like we so commonly associate men as being.

One of the biggest ways we can work to combat this stereotype is to alter it ourselves. By allowing the freedom for men to perform more stereotypical female jobs and women to perform stereotypical masculine jobs, we can normalize the idea of all genders in all positions.

I will say, history definitely plays a powerful role in helping us to develop our beliefs and understand the world. Historically, leadership roles have been mainly held by men, which means that most of our conceptions of leadership have been formed by the characteristics that these male figures in power have displayed.

Not to say that we have not seen an upsurge in women leaders. Democratic Senators, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, running for president this year serves as an example. But we certainly still have a long way to go until the word “leader” stops being associated with masculinity.

Though we have come a long way, we as a society, are trapped in our own ways. We must first begin to accept other possibilities and our own biases before attempting to counteract them.