Feminine? Masculine? Androgynous leadership as a necessity in COVID-19

Stacy Blake-Beard (School of Business, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Mary Shapiro (School of Business, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Cynthia Ingols (School of Business, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 10 September 2020

Issue publication date: 15 December 2020

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Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between leaders’ expressed traits and their impact on their country’s COVID-19 outcomes. Some leaders are over relying on masculine traits and dismissing feminine traits. An alternative – androgynous leadership – supports leaders in drawing from the full portfolio of behaviors.

Design/methodology/approach

This paper has a theoretical approach using an extensive review of the literature.

Findings

Leaders can take a number of actions to fully embrace androgynous leadership. These actions include building a diverse “tempered” team, communicating with respect, recognizing the impact of framing and moving from autopilot to realizing their best androgynous self.

Research limitations/implications

Research limitations include a critique of Bem’s framework as outdated and dichotomous; a categorization of feminine, masculine and neutral behaviors that is determined by the authors; and a focus on leadership style that does not take other dimensions, such as health-care systems, into account.

Practical implications

The authors propose that an “androgynous” leadership style has been used effectively by some political leaders around the globe in the COVID-19 crisis. The COVID-19 context has provided a laboratory for developing and building competence as androgynous leaders.

Social implications

The mental capacity to look at a situation, pause and explicitly select effective behavior is necessary, but oftentimes, it is not put into practice. By not drawing from a larger portfolio of androgynous behaviors, the opportunity for leaders to their best work is missed.

Originality/value

There is an acknowledgement of the benefits of the combination of masculine and feminine leadership traits. There are also clear recommendations supporting leaders in developing their androgynous leadership skills.

Keywords

Citation

Blake-Beard, S., Shapiro, M. and Ingols, C. (2020), "Feminine? Masculine? Androgynous leadership as a necessity in COVID-19", Gender in Management, Vol. 35 No. 7/8, pp. 607-617. https://doi.org/10.1108/GM-07-2020-0222

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Although COVID-19 is forcing us all to take on new behaviors (social distancing, wearing masks and working virtually), the behaviors that leaders adopt in handling this pandemic are essential to the survival of our communities and society. However, there are two forces that may limit the portfolio of behaviors that leaders use to successfully navigate this herculean task.

Leadership has long been conflated with masculine attributes such as being decisive, aggressive, forceful, dominant and risk-taking (Eagly, 1987; Eagly and Johnson, 1990; Koenig et al., 2011; Schein, 1973, 2007). The pressures that constrict leadership to masculine traits are tremendous, given the penalties that both men and women [1] incur when acting beyond the socially desired traits based on their gender (Eagly and Karau, 2002). Another more subtle dynamic in the discourse is that leaders who do display feminine traits may be seen to lack leadership gravitas. These leaders may not be called “feminine”; they may instead be labeled as “weak-willed” (Cohen, 2019). From an overreliance on masculine traits to the dismissal of feminine traits, the description of what a leader should look like has traditionally been constrained.

These two dynamics – overreliance and dismissal – are based on people’s socialization to expect that in times of crises, leaders will be laser-focused on the task. These crises may include a financial collapse, a climate catastrophe, and now COVID-19. Leaders are expected to act quickly, decisively, and with an autocratic orientation (Blausten, 2009; Peus et al., 2012). Indeed, contingency theory and the situational model of leadership, while challenged and modified by scholars over time, help explain the current propensity to rely on masculine task-focused behaviors (Fiedler, 1978; Hersey and Blanchard, 1969). Both frameworks suggest that autocratic leadership is effective when the task is urgent, of highest priority and high (in the case of COVID-19, existential) value.

Over the past decades, there has been an evolution in the narrative of what constitutes “good” leadership in times of a crisis. Contemporary scholars have posited that feminine attributes, such as being compassionate, sympathetic or soft-spoken, may position a leader to effectively build the trust and collaboration necessary for current complexities and working globally across cultures (Adler and Osland, 2016; Eagly and Carli, 2003; Gerzema and D’Antonio, 2013). We speculate that an overreliance on masculine behaviors has proven insufficient in leading in a crisis. A dismissal of feminine traits also brings us no closer to the leadership necessary to guide us through COVID-19. Over the years, many scholars have called for androgynous leadership (Ayman and Korabik, 2010; Berkery et al., 2012; Gartzia and van Engen, 2012). We propose that now is a critical time for leaders to take up that style, drawing from the full portfolio of behaviors available to them, whether masculine or feminine.

To support our hypothesis, we examine four leaders, providing examples of their masculine and feminine behaviors. The two leaders who practice androgynous leadership have seen a significant decrease in new COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to European center for disease prevention and control statistics (Roser, et al., 2020). The two leaders who have limited themselves to masculine behaviors have continued to see COVID-19 cases and deaths grow (Simoes and Hjelmgaard, 2020). We conclude with insights for leaders that will serve them in this current crisis and those ahead.

Foundations of androgynous leadership: Bem

Although Bem (1974) is more broadly known for the masculinity–femininity dichotomy embedded in her Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), the intent of her work, namely, to provide an instrument to research psychological androgyny, is often overlooked. The BSRI is a compilation of 60 attributes distilled from 400 personality characteristics, distributed across three desirability scales for masculinity, femininity and neutral (Table 1).

Bem’s categorization process is explained as: “A characteristic qualified as masculine if it was judged to be more desirable in American society for a man than for a woman, as feminine if it was judged to be more desirable for a woman to enact, and determined neutral if the trait was no more desirable for one sex than for the other.” The BSRI allows researchers to assess a third expression of gender: androgyny is a person who scores high in both masculine and feminine traits. Bem hypothesized that “many individuals might be ‘androgynous,’ that is, they might be both masculine and feminine […] depending on the situational appropriateness of these behaviors.” (1974, p. 155). An androgynous individual is comfortable engaging in both masculine and feminine behaviors, allowing for a more fluid and flexible expression of their gender unrestricted by traditional Western gender role expectations.

Bem’s work launched a stream of research into androgyny, even as many scholars challenged the BSRI’s validity; sought to determine whether the desirability of traits shifted over time; or examined the applicability of the scale across demographic groups, activities and roles, such as leadership [2]. Several hypotheses that Bem researched are particularly useful in this article, as we examine the gendered attributes contemporary global leaders are enacting as they deal with COVID-19. Based on a synthesis of information from research literature and the popular press, we propose that androgynous leadership is the most effective style. In her examination of androgyny, Bem (1975) found that androgynous individuals are more capable at flexing their behavior to be effective in varied situations. However, more sex-typed individuals, meaning those who had internalized society’s expectations for their sex, will avoid sex-inappropriate activities, even when incurring a penalty (Bem and Lenny, 1976). “Masculine individuals of both sexes are high in independence but low in nurturance, and feminine individuals of both sexes are low in independence and high in nurturance,” argued Bem et al. (1976, p. 1022).

Lessons and insights from Bem and the researchers who followed her work are more critical now than ever – the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a global shift in the way citizens, governments and leaders interact with one another. The conditions associated with COVID-19 require leaders to enact both masculine and feminine traits in their leadership style. As important as it is to have these traits, it is as important to have the ability to discern “situational appropriateness” (Bem, 1975). Leaders in a COVID-19 world are going to be more effective as they evince, practice and use androgynous leadership [3].

Androgynous leadership in an age of COVID-19

Analyzing leadership through masculine and feminine behaviors is not new. Starr and Zurbriggen (2016) found 835 articles on Bem alone, published between 1981 and 2015, with over 18% internationally. We propose to extend that conversation by mapping Bem’s gender traits directly onto the recent behaviors of leaders who are managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Are there benefits to enacting an androgynous leadership style? Are there costs when an androgynous style is not used? Drawing from recent activities of highly visible leaders and their citizens, we believe the answer is yes to both questions.

We found a clear connection between Bem’s masculine and feminine traits and the behaviors that are being seen as responses to COVID-19. Masculine behaviors that Bem noted include being competitive, defending one’s beliefs, making decisions easily and acting in a dominant fashion. Masculine COVID-19 leadership behaviors that we have seen include focusing on overcoming the virus; prioritizing physical well-being; funding and producing masks, Personal protective equipments and other materials needed; pressuring work on vaccines; placing a high value on the economic and financial impact of suspending business; and moving to reopen businesses quickly. Beyond these task-focused behaviors, we have also seen denigrating others’ behaviors as “weak”; using war-like language to describe the virus and the needed response; situating all the responsibility for acting in their own domain; resisting the input of experts and science (to maintain independence and authority); and suggesting that the reaction to the virus is overblown (dismissive or knee-jerk reactions).

In contrast to the masculine lexicon, Bem identified feminine attributes that include being warm, gentle, sympathetic, sensitive to others’ needs and tender. Feminine COVID-19 leadership behaviors that we have observed include addressing the socio-emotional needs of a community or country; situating the virus as a threat to the full community and soliciting the involvement of every individual as part of the solution to protect each other and the larger community; placing a high value on people’s lives and well-being; providing a vision of a better post-COVID-19 world; and role-modeling for others what they are asking them to do (i.e. socially distancing and wearing a mask).

Leaders who have purposefully and (some would argue) strategically drawn from both feminine and masculine traits have been featured in the popular press. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has been commended for broadening her leadership style in this time of crisis. We see that her use of both masculine and feminine traits reflects androgynous leadership. Masculine behaviors that Merkel has evinced include taking a firm stand on how serious the coronavirus is; using her scientific background to convey the science behind the pandemic; and taking quick, early actions. A dramatic example of using a feminine behavior was when she uncharacteristically used a televised national address as an opportunity to connect with her country’s people, and she used relational language, asking Germans to work together. She was described as “human, very approachable, very transparent and very clear in her message” (Beaubien, 2020). Although Germany is still dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 cases a day, transmission of the virus has gone down faster and with fewer deaths than most other countries in Europe (Roser et al., 2020).

Another leader using an androgynous style is Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York in the USA. He enacted the masculine behaviors of decisiveness and forcefulness when he acted to isolate COVID-19 “hot spots,” ordered the construction of hospital beds in the middle of Central Park and vigorously demanded resources from the federal government. Yet, he has also been a leader who is routinely invited into the living rooms of millions of Americans. Although Cuomo has held daily briefings that offer straightforward sobering facts about COVID-19 (masculine), he also acts on the feminine attributes of warmth and understanding: he gives heart-felt appreciation to all those working on the “front line” in health care, trucking and grocery markets; he includes personal anecdotes about his brother who contracted COVID-19; and he was tested live on TV so that his constituents would see that the test was not painful. Recent statistics for New York State were encouraging. On June 6, 2020, Cuomo reported that the virus had killed 35 people across the State in the past 24 h, down from a peak of over 800 deaths a day in April (N.Y. Gov, 2020). Across nations and states, more positive outcomes are reported when there is a leader who is androgynous in terms of leadership style.

We have seen the positive impact of androgynous leaders. But what happens when a leader resists androgyny? The popular press is replete with examples of leaders who predominantly draw from masculine traits and the outcomes have generally not been encouraging. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been identified as one of the most cavalier leaders in relation to how seriously he is (or is not) taking COVID-19. Several brutal statistics speak to the impact of Bolsonaro’s disregard for the virus: his country is reopening even as it reaches its highest death toll in two consecutive days; more than 32,000 people have died and 530,000 have been infected; and beaches, stores and other venues have been allowed to resume business (Bostock, 2020). Most telling is Bolsonaro’s comment, “Sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny” (Schladebeck, 2020).

Donald Trump, President of the USA, has drawn on the masculine behaviors of risk-taking, competitiveness and individualism. He has made a show of flaunting the rules of safety: he does not wear a mask in public and consistently exposes himself and his staff to potential virus carriers; he has situated dealing with COVID-19 as “our big war” and “fighting an invisible enemy” (Bennett and Berenson, 2020); and he refuses to believe experts, science or data and relies on his own intuition to make decisions. The USA now has more than 1.3 million confirmed cases according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker – almost six times as many as any other country, and the number of dead is the largest in the world (BBC News, 2020).

Insights for leaders

We have examined four leaders who have made choices in how they are leading during this pandemic. Some have chosen an androgynous style; some have not. What can we learn from their choices? We offer these insights that leaders can take away from this discussion of leading through a crisis. Actions that leaders can take include fully embracing androgynous leadership, building a diverse “tempered” team, communicating with respect, recognizing the impact of framing and moving from autopilot to realize our best androgynous self.

Fully embrace androgynous leadership

By giving ourselves permission to draw from the full portfolio of leadership behaviors, it takes a measure of bravery, self-assurance and willingness to act, especially in the face of defying long-established gendered norms and expectations. Yet, in this COVID-19 crisis, successful leaders are those who have demonstrated the capacity to act with an aura of command and also a compassionate gentleness. Penalties for acting inconsistently with social gendered expectations are well established. Eagly and Karau (2002) named role incongruity theory to explain how women’s behaviors as leaders are viewed less favorably than those same behaviors enacted by men. Mayer (2018) summarized the research on how men are impacted when taking up feminine behaviors: being vulnerable, more communal and/or more modest were interpreted as being less competent and resulted in lower incomes, fewer promotions and seen as unfit for leadership.

After bravery, what does a leader do when deciding to use a gender-incongruent behavior? One key strategy is to name what you are doing; why are you doing it; and what you are intending to accomplish by doing it. For example, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, explained her decisive closure of the country’s borders: “at no time in New Zealand’s history has a power like this been used, and I recognize how extraordinary it is. We need to do this for the health of the country, and our people” (Roy, 2020). With that statement, Ardern showed the strategic intent of her masculine action while linking it back to the gender-congruent traits of compassion and understanding.

Build a diverse “tempered” team

Leaders, acting on the masculine attributes of independence, dominance and forcefulness, lead from the belief that they alone can fix it and that asking for help is a sign of weak leadership (Bush, 2020; Manz and Sims, 1991). Androgynous leaders recognize that they cannot be successful alone; they need to share the stage with a diverse “tempered” team. Building on the germinal work of Audre Lorde (1984), Meyerson and Scully (1995) describe tempered individuals as those who are adept at both heating up and cooling down – at calling out incongruities in values and actions while also having the strength to maintain composure and equanimity in the face of turmoil and change. An androgynous leader will benefit from having a team of “tempered” partners.

Androgynous leaders must be not only willing to stand against established norms but also need to be supported by a circle of leaders who are willing to take critical steps and make challenging decisions. An androgynous leader is not well-served by having a circle of “yes people” – those who do not challenge or question decisions. Androgynous leaders also have the ability and willingness to share the stage with others. They are sufficiently confident in their own contributions to enable others to shine through when making theirs. An androgynous leader who has assembled a team of “tempered” compatriots, who are both diverse and unified, sends a critical message to those who are watching their actions. This team composition signals that an androgynous leader does not need to be the sole decision-maker – and the decisions are better as a result of the varied views and perspectives. An androgynous leader must also have a degree of self-awareness, a willingness to acknowledge a gap in knowledge or experience and a process for bringing in people to augment gaps. In the time of COVID-19, these gaps most likely involve relying on scientists and medical experts. Yet, building a “tempered team” that is complementary involves taking on the feminine traits of humility, willingness to listen to others, the ability to share authority and to not be dominant.

Communicate with respect

One factor seen across androgynous leaders was frequent, transparent and respectful communication with key stakeholders. Instead of being paternalistic and condescending (i.e. Trump dismissing the threat as something that will go away with warm weather), Merkel, with her doctorate in quantum chemistry, explained the science of the virus in an accessible way. Cuomo shared hard and often discouraging statistics daily. Their consistent communication served dual purposes. They did not only convey their respect for and trust in the intelligence of their populaces but also assuaged fear by reducing the unknown and by filling uncertainty with facts. Their steady messaging also gave people clear reasons for doing the hard work of social distancing and other key measures that would curb the spread of the virus. Merkel and Cuomo shared information to whatever degree they could, even when it was incomplete and ever-changing, making them vulnerable in a manner that supports a foundation of trust. Ardern practiced what Wilson (2020) described as three levels of communication: “direction-giving,” “meaning-making” and “empathy”.

Recognize the impact of framing

It is important to not only communicate with a measure of respect but also be strategic about how issues are positioned as they are being shared. Framing represents a process “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Entman, 1993, p. 52). Our examples of the leaders who are relying predominantly on masculine leadership illustrate how they have positioned – framed – COVID-19 as a war. As Masu (2020) writes, “the war-time imagery is compelling. It identifies an enemy (the virus), a strategy (“flatten the curve”), the front-line warriors (health-care personnel), the home-front (people isolating at home), and the traitors and deserters (people breaking the social-distancing rules).” Yet, this stance also has many shortfalls. Citizens are urged to become soldiers who must follow their leaders unquestioningly. Additionally, this war-time imagery lends itself to the promotion of nationalism, as nations compete for resources. Instead, our androgynous leaders appeal to “civic duty, solidarity and respect for fellow human beings” (Masu, 2020). Ardern addresses her citizens as “a team of 5 million”; Merkel calls for “the need to work together” (Beaubien, 2020). Both of their framing tactics signal that everyone has an active part, indeed a responsibility, in caring for each other against a threat to the health of their community.

Moving from auto pilot to our best androgynous self

Scholars have long called for people to use an androgynous style of leadership, citing the beneficial outcomes of better decision-making (Radecki and Jaccard, 1996), higher creativity (Norlander, et al., 2000), increased inter-group cooperation (Gartzia and van Knippenberg, 2016) and more innovative work cultures (Solberg, 2008). On a personal level, the ability to draw from both masculine/agentic and feminine/communal traits is associated with mental and social well-being as well as higher self-esteem, relationship satisfaction, better physical health and lower loneliness (Gartzia, et al., 2018).

So then, why does not everyone practice androgynous leadership? We have already discussed the potential penalties associated with enacting behaviors that are gender-incongruent. But, it takes time, energy, discipline and self-awareness to intentionally disrupt habitual behaviors. With the speed, complexity and demands of today’s crisis, leaders most likely are functioning on “auto-pilot,” unconsciously relying on behaviors they have always used. Most likely, they do not have the time or mental capacity to look at a situation, pause and explicitly select the behavior that will be most effective. Yet, that is exactly the new habit we need to build. By not investing in the moment to pull from that larger portfolio of available behaviors, we miss the opportunity to do our best work.

Conclusion

“Dealing with the unforeseen challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on people all across the world” (Cohut, 2020). In these times of extreme stress and uncertainty, the actions that leaders take are critical. We are proposing that an “androgynous” leadership style has been used effectively by some political leaders around the globe in the COVID-19 crisis. Further, we believe that the COVID-19 context provides a laboratory for developing and building competence as androgynous leaders: what we learn and practice during COVID-19 will serve individuals and communities beyond this crisis. In short, the actions of androgynous leaders can be inspirational for all.

Items on BSRI

Feminine items Masculine items Neutral items
Affectionate
Cheerful
Childlike
Compassionate
Does not use harsh language
Eager to soothe hurt feelings
Feminine
Flatterable
Gentle
Gullible
Loves children
Loyal
Sensitive to the needs of others
Shy
Soft-spoken
Sympathetic
Tender
Understanding
Warm
Yielding
Acts as a leader
Aggressive
Ambitious
Analytical
Assertive
Athletic
Competitive
Defends own beliefs
Dominant
Forceful
Has leadership abilities
Independent
Individualistic
Makes decisions easily
Masculine
Self-reliant
Self-sufficient
Strong personality
Willing to take a stand
Willing to take risks
Adaptable
Conceited
Conscientious
Conventional
Friendly
Happy
Helpful
Inefficient
Jealous
Likeable
Moody
Reliable
Secretive
Sincere
Solemn
Tactful
Theatrical
Truthful
Unpredictable
Unsystematic

Source: Bem (1974)

Notes

1.

There are a number of caveats important to recognize regarding our gender nomenclature. In this article, we use terms “men” and “women” as socially constructed identity groups. Those terms are used as “shorthand” for both individuals who identify as male/female and individuals who present as male/female. First, we recognize the continuum of gender identity in that gender is not binary. Second, other social identities of the leader, such as ethnicity and class, also can impact their ability to lead and be perceived as leader.

2.

As a further examination of Bem’s work, we looked at how her work’s validity has been challenged and how her original traits have shifted over time.

BSRI’s validity. Over the past 60 years, many scholars have challenged the BSRI instrument on multiple fronts. Hoffman and Borders (2001) provide an extensive summary of both theoretical and methodological challenges. Specific examples of challenges include its scoring procedure (Uleman and Weston, 1986), its factor structure (Pedhuzar and Tetenbaum, 1979), the limitation to two factors (Brems and Johnson, 1990), the unrelatedness of masculinity and femininity (Wong et al., 1990) and the reliability of self-reporting (Choi et al., 2008).

Trait shifts over time. Scholars have regularly revisited the BSRI scale, as they anticipated the potential for trait changes in reflection of changes in the roles played by American men and women. Auster and Ohm (2000) found that many traits had become more androgynous. Indeed, only 8 of the 20 BSRI masculine traits remained masculine, and 18 of the 20 femininetraits remained feminine. In the study of Ingols et al.’s study (2015) found further evidence of this shift toward androgyny, with six (out of 20) masculine and six (out of 20) feminine traits now regarded as androgynous in an American business setting. In a meta-analysis of 94 samples between 1974 and 2012, Donnelly and Twenge (2017) found that women’s androgyny scores increased significantly, whereas men’s remained the same.

3.

We recognize that there are many confounding factors that contribute to a leader’s ability to effectively impact COVID-19. Factors beyond a leader’s style include a country’s prior experience with pandemics, the structure and availability of its health care, the type of government and the local social culture with its unique value system and expectations for behavior. In this commentary, we are focusing on just one of those many factors.

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Corresponding author

Stacy Blake-Beard can be contacted at: stacy.blakebeard@simmons.edu