Gender and Leadership: Framing the problem(s)

Hello! Lately we’ve been discussing gender and leadership in the Community of Interest in Applied Psychoanalysis reading group and I thought this was as good a place as any to work through some of the ideas rattling around in my brain.

This is a big and complicated topic and one which there’s not as much as you’d think written about (or as much as is needed), but we’ve read some interesting stuff and had some great conversations.

I’ve noticed that when I talk about “gender and leadership” or “women’s issues in leadership” or “social justice and leadership” I and maybe you too run into a few problems. It goes something like this:

  1. What do you actually mean by leadership? What makes a good leader? A healthy organization? You have to define your terms. Not to mention, what really is gender?
  2. But when you do define your terms, you wind up noticing that you’ve made a whole host of value judgements and implicit assumptions.
  3. Many of these judgements and assumptions are retrograde and problematic. Leadership and organizational health are almost always defined in male-centric terms, based on what you could think of as ‘masculinity’ or ‘masculine culture’, because in leadership discourses, masculinity is treated as neutral and ordinary and femininity as the other.
  4. So you start to think, OK, what would it mean to ‘lead like a woman’ instead of trying to get women to lead like men?
  5. Then you realize you have to define what a woman IS, and by extension what a man is, and that is ground you really don’t want to be standing on.
  6. Then you give up, realizing that it’s more or less impossible to have a conversation about this without reifying some form of gender essentialism.

So as you see, the question of discussing “gender and leadership” is a very difficult one to open. You have a couple of options for your starting point.

You can do some research: in Canada, women (however that is understood) make up 16.3% of CEOs and 25% of federal politicians; earn 74% of what men do (68% if you’re a woman of colour); are underrepresented in the clergy in those religions which allow women to lead, and are denied access to leadership in many religions; and are underrepresented in the arts and culture, with the majority of films, plays, books, etc authored/directed/performed by men. This is appropriately appalling as far as statistics go, but this approach raises a question on its own…

Namely, that the lack of women in leadership positions only matters if you think the social hierarchy is a good thing which ought to be preserved, that the only problem to talk about in terms of gender and leadership is how to make sure women have equal access to power within our social structure, rather than the structure itself. This is a “liberal feminist” project, to get more women into positions of power, rather than critiquing the structure, roles and positions themselves.

So you could take another approach. Radical and/or 3rd-wave feminism (there are big differences between these streams of feminism, but they are more or less united on this) offer a critique to these structures, imagining women creating their own visions and practices of leadership. Which sounds great! Women leading like women rather than acting out men’s tired hierarchical garbage. But what does that MEAN? We’ve now run the risk of reifying some pretty dehumanizing gender roles, defining women in opposition to men (as having “women’s ways” rather than their own individual leadership styles), and of “valorizing” women and femininity. Can we take on this position without pretending that gender differences are innate, that women on average are so different than men that they would, by definition, lead differently, and that those differences aren’t a symptom of systemic misogyny? Do we have to buy into the othering framework, presenting “men’s ways of leading” as either normal and good and right or as toxic garbage? In short, how the heck do we talk about the very real and obvious questions around gender, leadership, difference and authority without either reifying gender differences, mystifying leadership, or propping up unjust power structures?

This sort of taken-for-granted is even more complicated by the different projections and unconscious fantasies we have around women in leadership, the different ways we conceive of male leaders as fathers and female leaders as mothers, and the different needs and expectations we have of them. How does THAT work with our problem of how to talk about gender and leadership without reproducing injustice?

I suspect that this is a problem of meaning – and one that has real-life consequences – that will never be “solved”, at least not as long as we have a concept of gender difference and attach importance to it. It seems like we often think we have moved on from one injustice or another only to have it pop right back up again (who thought Nazism was going to be a major problem in 2017?). So I don’t know how we can encourage and enable women to take up leadership; but I do think it’s a good thing. Let’s keep talking about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *