The Theoretical Case for Women Leaders?

Posted on May 1, 2013 by



With the ongoing dialogue regarding women in leadership, a theoretical case can be presented that argues the effectiveness of women leaders based on ideal leadership styles and traits.  Previous research has focused primarily on men in leadership, arguing that masculine leadership traits were more desired and effective.  While underrepresented in the C-Suite for Fortune 500 companies, women have increased their presence in leadership and management roles, with more recent research capturing competencies and traits of effective leadership based on those in leadership positions.  As such, it can be argued that research regarding effective leadership reflects both male and female influences, supporting the effectiveness of women in top leadership positions.

Historical research has shown that traits such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, self-reliance, need for achievement, and action oriented behaviors were identified as those of effective leaders (Bass, 1990; Denmark, 1993; Ellis, 1988). The early literature studied those who were in leadership positions at that time, who were primarily male, and thus the traits identified were consistent with what is generally perceived as masculine traits. Traits considered people or employee centric, caring or nurturing were viewed as “helper” traits and more feminine as they were demonstrated by those in “helper” roles (administrative support) that were primarily women (Jogulu & Wood, 2006).

Current leadership research has evolved in defining leadership strategies, essence and traits, to focus more on specific behaviors that create engagement, empowerment, autonomy, and other factors consistent with transformational leadership styles (Bass, 1990; Jogulu & Wood, 2006). Such a leadership style incorporates both task oriented and people oriented behaviors to achieve organizational goals. These traits and styles have evolved or been refined with ongoing research of organizational leaders, that include women. These current studies and theories related to transformational leadership therefore may have arguably increased awareness of women in leadership positions and possibly raising the profile of women in management (Bass, 1990; Jogulu & Wood, 2006).

Thus the argument that men are stronger leaders becomes even more of a fallacy given that current research has studied those in leadership roles, which includes more women than that of research prior to the 90’s. Further, the “ideal” leadership style is one that strikes a keen balance between situations, people and outcomes, with less focus on gender but greater emphasis on key traits that can be demonstrated regardless of gender.  Regardless of the theoretical foundation, the dialogue regarding women in leadership should continue.  More importantly, it should move from discourse to action, with steps taken to identify, develop and promote talented women to higher leadership positions.

Bass, B. (1990). Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory Research and Managerial Applications, 3rd edition. Free Press, New York, New York.

Clarke, M. (2011).  Advancing women’s careers through leadership development.  Employee Relations, 33(5), 498-515.  DOI 10.1108/01425451111153871

Denmark, F.L. (1993). Women, leadership and empowerment.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 343-356.

Ellis, R.J. (1988). Self monitoring and leadership emergence in groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14,681-693.

Jogulu, U.D. and Wood, G.J. (2006).  The role of leadership theory in raising the profile of women in management. Equal Opportunities International, 25(4), 236-250. DOI 10.1108/02610150610706230