Transforming unions with feminine leadership styles

Transforming unions with feminine leadership stylesClarresa Moore2004-01-0134The Centrefalse

Among the respondents in the 2002–03 ACUI Salary Survey, 33 percent of all directors of unions and activities are women. This figure is up from 26 percent in 1998 and 27 percent in 1999. Of the 2002–03 survey respondents, 54 percent of the directors of campus activities and 41 percent of directors of union and activities are female. As for the next level of union administration, 45 percent of associate directors and 51 percent of assistant directors in the 2002–03 survey were women. If these reports can be generalized to the entire field, we can predict a steady increase in women holding administrative positions in the college union profession. Women are earning graduate degrees in education at a disproportionate rate compared to male students (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2003). If these graduate programs continue to be the primary source of academic preparation for union leaders (Morton, 1999), we can assume that even more women will enter into leadership positions in the field.

Although women are not new to the ranks of leadership in college unions, men have traditionally dominated the field, especially in the highest administrative positions. If women leaders are increasing in numbers, what, if anything, are the implications for the future of college union leadership? Does the fact that the leader is a woman rather than a man matter? Does it make a difference in the workplace? Do women lead differently than men? Are styles of leadership, leadership characteristics, types of interactions with followers and peers different than for men in similar positions? Does gender change the face of union leadership? These and similar questions confound higher education administrators throughout the nation.

Recognizing the large number of women currently in union leadership positions, questions of gender difference assume greater importance than in previous years. What do we need to know about women and leadership to advance our work successfully?

Until recently, the difference be-tween the sexes was understood to be biological in nature. Gender, a social construct referring to the sociocultural differences in roles of men and women in society, has been the explanation most relevant to differences in workplace behaviors. Gender roles, those cultural expectations that define how members of each sex behave, are learned behaviors established by cultural norms (Thio, 2000). Traditional American gender roles indicate that women develop different expectations for behavior than do men. Women are more likely to be passive, to express feelings of sadness and sympathy, and to suppress anger (Thio, 2000). While gender roles are not universal, anthropologists report that behaviors consistent with traditional American gender roles can be observed in most societies worldwide. Men have the dominant, public-oriented, breadwinner roles, with women having the more supportive, nurturing, homemaking roles (Thio, 2000).

Universally identifiable differences between males and females are documented in studies by biologists and medical scientists. Well-documented chromosomal differences explain propensities for men to be larger and stronger than women. Chromosomal differences also explain sex differences in health-related susceptibility, vulnerability to stress, and in brain structure (Ariniello, 1998; Krupa, 2001; Thio, 2000).

Physiological and social differences also have implications for women's behaviors in the workplace. Textbooks from the sociology and business management fields reference a leadership/management style catalogued as "feminine" or "feminist (egalitarian)." It is worth noting that the initial validation for calling the style feminine seems to be rooted in sociocultural rationale. Traits such as compassion, gentleness, understanding, excitability, sensitivity, submissiveness, sentimentality, and personal power are considered "feminine." "Masculine" traits include dominant, assertive, autocratic, independent behaviors (Hughes, Kroehler, Vander Zanden, 1999; Rosener, 1990).

Enculturalization does have an influence on women's behavior in the workplace. Personal values, which are well established by early adulthood, determine one's reactions, decisions, and actions, especially in moments of crisis. Values also affect one's perceptions, which in turn, affect the direction of organizational initiatives and the success of followers in an organization (Daft, 2002). In short, those values, which may not be clearly articulated or even understood, have a profound influence in shaping the culture of the organization.

Women, who have been socialized to nurture their family and care for the home, bring those same caring, nurturing traits into the workplace. Because women develop differently, at work they are more likely to demonstrate an ethic of care, grounded in relationships rather than laws and regulations. These traditional behaviors are reinforced further by organizational cultures that reward masculine behavior in men and punish women who exhibit those behaviors. Women must balance the demands of their positions with the social expectations of them as women. As a result of these constraints, they have far less latitude in their choices than do men (Hudson & Williamson, 2002; Salter, 2003).

Hudson and Williamson (2002) report that the process for socializing women employees to a new workplace is informal, rather than formal, and it is intense. The informality of the process, occurring in a brief period of time, results in a "custodial" orientation to workplace norms. This custodial orientation represents an unwillingness to challenge traditional norms for the role (Hudson & Williamson, 2002). Other studies of socialization in educational settings confirmed a continued emphasis, and even a sense of safety for women and other employees, in adopting a custodial socialization.

When socially acceptable behaviors for women are combined with their innate skills in communicating, verbal fluency, identifying nuances, and picking up peripheral information, a style of leadership emerges that is consistent with women's skills and abilities (Krupa, 2001; Thio, 2000; Salter, 2003). Rosener (1990) found that men and women executives with similar incomes and work-family situations exhibited marked differences in describing their leadership performance. Men tended to describe their interactions in ways that were consistent with transactional leadership theories, viewing their performance as a series of transactions exchanging rewards for services rendered. Women in the same group tended to describe their interactions with subordinates in terms that indicate a more transformational style of leadership, getting subordinates to move from self-interest to that of the group. In her studies, Rosener (1990) also found that women leaders tended to ascribe their power to personal characteristics such as hard work, interpersonal skills, charisma, and personal contact rather than positional power.

What we know

What do we know about women and their leadership styles? What do we know about women in leadership positions—their challenges, their responses, how they succeed? We know that gender differences do exist. We also know that, in general, women in leadership positions demonstrate a predil-ection for certain types of behaviors and interactions.

Traditional leadership traits, those associated with white American males, include aggressive, assertive behaviors, rational analysis, take charge attitudes, competitiveness, dominance, and individualistic, hierarchical tendencies (Daft, 2002; Harris, Smith, & Hale, 2002; Rosener, 1990; Schein, 1989). Women's leadership, on the other hand, is characterized by inclusiveness, receptiveness, shared decision making, concern for relationships, cooperativeness, and a climate of openness (Daft, 2002; Harris et al., 2002; Rosener, 1990; Schein, 1989). Hudson and Williamson (2002) found that ambition, position power, and prestige were less important motivators for women leaders than for men. They found that service and the personal and professional fulfillment that comes with "making a difference" mattered to women.

Interactive leadership

Rosener (1990) labels this feminine style interactive leadership. Interactive leaders favor consensus building, collaborative processes, and influence based on relationships rather than position. Proponents of the interactive, collaborative style adopt a contextual world view, valuing subjective as well as objective knowledge. Values associated with interactive leadership, while traditionally considered feminine, are emerging as valuable qualities for both male and female leaders in this decade (Daft, 2002).

Inclusive practices characteristic of a feminine style is reflected in choice of language. Hudson and Williamson (2002) report that women leaders deliberately adopt language that sounds conditional and tentative compared to traditional male absolutism. The women's preferred language does not reflect uncertainty, but it is selected to reduce the perception of challenge, to invite others into the conversation, to give others a voice (Hudson & Williamson, 2002). Women leaders tend to use language that encourages community building, expressing courtesy, respect, gratitude, and appreciation as a norm in the workplace (Harris et al., 2002).

Daft (2002) observes that women's interactive leadership seems appropriate for the future of learning organizations. He cites studies documenting women leaders' behaviors as being more participatory and less autocratic than traditional leader-follower interaction. One survey conducted by Bass and Avolio (1994) rated women leaders significantly higher than men on several criteria considered critical to rapidly changing, learning organizations. These leaders were rated higher than men in idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individual consideration, and intellectual stimulation, resulting in more effective subordinates who expressed greater satisfaction in the workplace. These qualities have correlation to successful influence in the students' learning enterprise, which may explain the success of women leaders in educational organizations.

Rosener (1990) suggests that women's leadership style tends to be more effective and successful in some situations and organizations, while a masculine style may be better suited for others. This theory has ramifications for the study of leadership in college unions. Women leaders are prevalent in educational organizations—making a significant impact and influencing the shape of these organizations. Women's ways of leading could lead to development of a more caring community in educational organizations (Harris et al., 2002).

While this discussion helps explain women's predilection for a collaborative style, linking this style too closely to gender is a mistake that could inhibit workplace development and expansion of leadership strengths. Both sociologists and management theorists clearly assert that the feminine style is not particular to women. Men often effectively employ the interactive, collaborative, transformational style, while many women successfully practice a more masculine style of leadership. The tendencies for women to adopt this interactive style has historic roots; however, with changing cultural norms, men may exhibit more comfort with approaches that permit a more humanistic, cooperative style that is consistent with the demands of today's fast, flexible organizations (Daft, 2002; Harris et al., 2002; Schein, 1989; Thio, 2000).

Women's leadership styles and college unions

Inclusive practices commonly ascri-bed to the women's leadership style are central to the operating philosophy of college unions. The advent of unions and activities programs onto the college campus was a direct response to student demands. As a result, college unions from their inception have operated as a de facto partner with student leaders whose formal positions range from advisory to supervisory in relation to the administration.

Practices involving student governing boards, student program boards, student development initiatives, community participants in the governance process, student involvement—all the concepts that characterize college unions' central philosophy—are consistent with interactive, transformational leadership. Enhanced self-worth, fun work environment, involved participation, relationship building, inclusion, trust, flexibility, intellectual stimulation, and responsiveness in a learning environment are all desired outcomes of the interactive leadership style (Daft, 2002; Harris et al., 2002; Rosener, 1990). These outcomes are compatible with the mission and goals of college union and student activities programs.

Interactive leadership, the hallmark of women's leadership style, is also the hallmark of college union administration. Values associated with interactive leadership such as inclusion, caring, follower involvement, and relationship building (Daft, 2002; Harris et al., 2002) are consistent with college union values. The success of women leaders in college union administration is probably not the result of happenstance. Consistent with the figures from the ACUI 2002–03 Salary Survey, a 1999 study of chief union administrators at research universities indicated that 30 percent of that population were women. Those women, who have responsibility for some of the most sophisticated, complex college union positions in the nation, were asked to list important skills for union directors. A comparison of listings of essential skills generated by women and men in that report yielded no significant difference. Human relations skills, associated with women's leadership styles, far outweigh technical and conceptual skills in identifying the most important skills for college union administrators to posses (Morton, 1999).

Women's leadership theory may have greater implications than expected if, in fact, the feminine style of leadership is well suited for eliciting the desired out comes in college unions. Study of this interactive form of leadership may inform practice for men as well as women. Understanding of women's ways of leading may not change the face of college union administration. However, adoption of a transformational, interactive, feminine leadership style may provide additional tools for all union administrators to improve practice in developing community.

Ariniello, L. (1998, September). Gender and the brain. Journal of Neuroscience. Retrieved January 23, 2003 from
Association of College Unions International. (2003, March). 2002–2003 Salary survey. The Bulletin (71)2.
Earned degrees conferred, 2000–1. (2003, August 29). The Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac Issue. p.19.
Daft, R.L. (2002). The leadership experience. Fort Worth: Harcourt.
Harris, C. M., Smith, P. L., & R. P Hale, (2002). Making it work: Women's ways of leading. Advancing women in leadership. Retrieved October 10, 2003 from
Hudson, M. B., Williamson, R. D. (2002, Fall). Women transitioning into leadership: Gender as both help and hindrance. Advancing women in leadership. Retrieved October 10, 2003 from
Hughes, M, Kroehler, C. J., & J. W. Vander Zanden, (1999). Sociology: The core. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Krupa, D. (2001, October). Gender and differing rates of brain activity influence the level of reading and language skills for boys and girls. American Physiological Society. Retrieved January 23, 2003 from
Morton, C. M. (1999). Knowledge and skills required or college union executive directors at research and doctoral 1 universities in the next decade. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.
Rosener, J. B. (1990). Ways women lead. In J. T. Wren (Ed.), (1995). The leader's companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. New York: The Free Press.
Salter, C. (2003). A study of the correlation between the motives of female high self monitors and emergent leadership: A literature review. Advancing women in leadership. Retrieved October 10, 2003 from
Schein, V. (1989). Would women lead differently? In J. T. Wren (Ed.), (1995). The leader's companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. New York: The Free Press.
Thio, A. (2000). Sociology: A brief introduction. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012