What is gender essentialism and why does it matter for women in leadership?

Toilets_unisex.svgIn our new article, “The problem of gender essentialism and its implications for women in leadership,” published in the Journal of Leadership Studies, Leanne Dzubinski and I explore these questions.

Gender essentialism is the belief that gender is an underlying, unchangeable essence that defines a person. In other words, it is the belief that gender differences are wholly derived from biological sex.

Gender theorists have long argued that gender is a socially constructed category. Biological sex cannot account for the differences in what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ across cultures and societies.

Why does this matter for women in leadership? If gender is an unchangeable trait, then societal and organizational gender inequities in the workplace can be attributed to nature rather than social structures. This gender essentialist assumption shows up in at least four ways in popular and scholarly literature about women’s leadership:

1) “Blame the victim” mentality – When gender is considered as an essentialist category, women are seen as faulty and needing to be fixed. There is plenty of literature which explains to women how they should change to meet workplace standards, instead of suggesting how the organizations can change to welcome and support women.

2) Appeasing the men – Recommendations to women to modify their dress, communication style and work habits again suggest that women themselves are the problem and they just need to adjust better to the environment. In reality it reflects their status as the less-privileged group in a male-dominated world.

3) Trait and styles view of leadership – Leadership theory has tended to discuss essentialist concepts of traits (inborn and innate) and styles (learned but based on stereotypes of men and women). Simply focusing on traits and styles is not enough to establish good leadership in varied contexts.

4) Cyclical nature of leadership problem – Gender essentialist views tend to cast men as leaders and women as nurturing supporters. If more women leaders are needed to see that women can lead, but women are not viewed as leaders and therefore not given the opportunity, then the cycle is unbreakable.

What can be done?

1) Consider women’s experiences as equally valid as men’s and equally deserving of respect and attention.

2) Deconstruct the narrative that men and women are opposites and replace it with a narrative of people with a variety of skills and abilities that contribute to organizational goals.

3) Eliminate the notion of limited good – that for women to gain, men must lose out. Such situations are rarely the only option.

If men and women are not opposites, then they need not be in competition with each other. Organizations can and should change to welcome and support people of all genders. A collaborative, flexible, multi-faceted view of gender reaches beyond essentialist thinking and allows organizations and society to flourish.

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