Reevaluating leadership: thoughts of gender identity

During this year’s Leadership Recognition Ceremony at Simmons, Vice President of Student Affairs and Associate Provost Sarah Neill highlighted the very real question that Simmons leaders ask themselves, “Am I even good enough?”

Although students stretch themselves by taking on numerous leadership positions on top of an often full class load, many still arrive at this self-doubt, which begs the question, why? We look to the field of organizational behavior (OB) to answer this question.

Professor Mary Shapiro of the School of Management teaches students in her OB class that gendered expectations teach leaders to behavior in specific ways. For example, women are expected to be yielding and accommodating and are seen as “unfeminine” if they exercise power by utilizing force. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be aggressive and exert force.

The population that was not explicitly included in Professor Shapiro’s class, unsurprisingly, were transgender and non-binary individuals. On top of trying to defend their often unrecognized identities to the rest of the world, these individuals also face the same question of self-worth in regard to leadership. The problem is that expectations of gender are ingrained in how we understand leadership.

In studies of leadership dating back from the sixth century, scholars used to identify leadership traits in typically masculine terms, such as persons exhibiting aggression, autocracy, competitive, decisive, and strength. Leadership is currently recognized in terms of conscientiousness, extroversion, interpersonal skills, and confidence in oneself to lead.

Although these traits characterize a great deal of leaders, these characteristics are not the end-all for leadership styles, which was also addressed by this year’s LRC with the presentation of the “Quiet Leader Award in P.A.S.S.I.O.N.”

Nevertheless, we need to continue this conversation on gendered expectations on leadership, especially as they relate to people who are left out of this discourse, including transgender and non-binary individuals. We need to ask ourselves, how do we define leadership and is this definition based on what a leader should exemplify or based on gender stereotypes?

As another academic year comes to an end at Simmons College, this period offers some time for reflection on the depth and breadth of student contributions. For 2017-2018, student leaders should keep in mind the different ways they exercise power and how they can give justice to gender identity politics in their student organizations.