#NCLGBA21 Recap Series: Leading While Female - Gender and Leadership in Local Government

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2021 Winter Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our next #NCLGBA21 Conference Recap comes from Lauren Tayara, Management and Budget Analyst with Mecklenburg County.

During the Winter 2021 Conference, Coates Distinguished Professor, Leisha DeHart-Davis presented her research on “Leading While Female: Gender and Leadership in Local Government.” A large topic in discussion in the last several years has been why there are fewer women in local government leadership positions than men. According to the research, it doesn’t seem to be a very distinct, direct reason; rather, there are several factors that play a part in this issue. Dr. DeHart-Davis started out by explaining two reasons that leadership is a different experience for women than for men. She also gave specific observations from research including differences in reactions to unethical leadership among genders.

The first reason discussed was society’s expectations on each gender. Unfortunately, men and women are both affected by this constraint as women are often expected to be nice, nurturing, and accommodating while men are often expected to be authoritative, independent, and in control. Individuals who don’t conform to these stereotypes tend to have difficulty in making their way in leadership positions. The second reason is the stereotypical characteristics of what a leader looks like: tall, white, male, and older. Of course, this reason is not only constraining to women. It also negatively affects people of color and anyone who doesn’t match that image.

Five Key Takeaways:

  1. Female leaders are evaluated more negatively than their male counterparts. Women are considered bossy, whereas men are considered assertive. (Eagley et al. 1992)
  2. The more competent a woman is perceived, the less likeable she is. The opposite also holds true. (Shneider et al. 2010)
  3. Women tend to exhibit a style of leadership (i.e., collaborative, less authoritative) that is less preferred in leadership positions. (Badura et al. 2018)
  4. Although women can be authoritative leaders, they are perceived to be less effective at disciplining employees unless it involves a two-way discussion. (Brett et al. 2005)
  5. Women expressing anger are perceived less effective than males and males showing sadness are perceived less effective. (Lewis 2000)

Another interesting part of DeHart-Davis’ presentation was on perceptions of unethical leadership in men and women. When faced with an unethical leader, women tend to evoke a “fight response” such as seeking an attorney, whereas male leaders evoke a “flight response,” such as seeking another job. Therefore, unethical male leaders are more likely to stay in leadership positions longer term, continuing the unethical behavior. Women are more likely to be confronted for their unethical behavior and fired or removed from the position (Pandey, DeHart-Davis, Pandey, Ahlawat 2021).

Given the research presented by Dr. DeHart-Davis, session participants were asked to speak within their groups about their observations and experiences. Male and female participants told stories of similar situations where they or coworkers may have been “overlooked” for a position or treated unfairly due to their gender. Knowing the research and hearing these experiences, Dr. DeHart-Davis suggests being aware of these differences in the workplace, checking your own biases, observing language used to evaluate women in organizations, and being allies to women.