Women as Transformational Leaders 


Leadership has been typically a male prerogative in most sectors of society, including the corporate, political, military, and church sectors (Eagly & Karau, 2002). However, over the last 30 years women have made steady progress in moving into leadership roles. In 1972, women held 17% of all management and professional positions in Fortune 500 Companies. By 2006, this number had grown to 50.3% (Hoyt, Simon, and Reid, 2009). Women typically tend to occupy lower and middle management ranks while men cluster around the most powerful positions at the top. Women managers still receive significantly less remuneration for their work, with female managers receiving 24 percent less pay than men performing the equivalent function (Haslam and Ryan, 2008). Nonetheless, despite continuing inequity, it is clear that women are gradually occupying an increasing number of management and leadership positions. 

The “Glass Ceiling” 

Although women have increasingly gained access to supervisory and middle management positions, they remain quite rare as elite leaders. For example, in 2006 women represented 5.2% of top earners, 14.7% of board members, 7.9% of the highest earners, and less than 2% of CEOs in Fortune 500 Companies (Hoyt, Simon, and Reid, 2009).This phenomenon has been explained by use of the idea of a “glass ceiling” – an invisible barrier preventing the rise of women within leadership ranks (Haslam & Ryan, 2008). Eagly and Karau (2002) describe it as “a barrier of prejudice and discrimination that excludes women from higher leadership positions” (p. 573).

Martell and DeSmet (2001) found that a contributing reason for the glass ceiling and the continued absence of women in the upper ranks of management is “the existence of gender-based stereotypes in the leadership domain” (p. 1227). Their survey study involved 151 managers (95 men and 56 women) and sought responses on 14 categories of leadership behavior: delegating, inspiring, intellectual stimulation, mentoring, modeling, monitoring, networking, problem solving, rewarding, supporting, upward influence, consulting, planning, and team building (Appendix). 

  • Male participants rated men as being significantly more likely than women to demonstrate the leadership behaviors of delegating, inspiring, intellectual stimulation, and problem solving. 

  • Female participants rated men as being significantly more likely than women to demonstrate delegating behavior, and women as being significantly more likely than men to demonstrate inspiring, mentoring, problem solving, rewarding, and supporting behaviors. 

There was a notable difference in perspective between male and female respondents. These responses measured stereotypical beliefs about the leadership capabilities of women and men, rather than the actual behaviors of specific managers. The problem for aspiring women leaders implicit within the findings of Martell and DeSmet (2001) is that men occupy most of the positions of power and hence their stereotypic perspective continues to have the most impact on the promotion of women to positions of elite leadership. They conclude by noting that “the existence of stereotypic beliefs, and their impact on how managerial women are perceived and treated, point to one reason for the impenetrability of the so-called glass ceiling” (p. 1227).

Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice toward Female Leaders 

Eagly and Karau (2002) propose a role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders based on perceived incongruity between the female gender role and leadership roles. Eagly and Karau posit that this perceived incongruity leads to 2 forms of prejudice: “(a) perceiving women less favorably than men as potential occupants of leadership roles and (b) evaluating behavior that fulfills the prescriptions of a leader role less favorably when it is enacted by a woman” (p. 573). One consequence is that attitudes are less positive toward female than male leaders and potential leaders. Another consequence is that it is more difficult for women to become leaders and to achieve success in leadership roles. 

Gender stereotypes are “categorical beliefs composed of the traits and behavioral characteristics assigned to women and men only on the basis of the group label” (Martell & DeSmet, 2001, p. 1223). Such stereotypes serve as a type of expectation regarding the likely abilities of group members and, if left unchallenged, can translate into discriminatory behavior. Eagly and Karau (2002) point out that a “potential for prejudice exists when social perceivers hold a stereotype about a social group that is incongruent with the attributes that are thought to be required for success in certain classes of social roles” (p. 574). Prejudice against women as leaders “follows from the incongruity that many people perceive between the characteristics of women and the requirements of leader roles” (Eagly & Karau, 2002, p. 574). 


  1. Do you think that women and men lead the same or differently? 

  2. What do you think are typical characteristics of women leaders? 

  3. What do you think are typical characteristics of men leaders? 

Gender Roles: Expectations about the Actual and Ideal Behavior of Women and Men 

Eagly and Karau (2002) describe gender roles as socially shared beliefs and expectations about the attributes of women and men. Gender roles are “consensual beliefs about the attributes of women and men” (p. 574). These beliefs and expectations are normative in that they describe qualities and behavioral tendencies that are viewed as desirable for each gender. The expectations include descriptive norms and injunctive norms. 

Descriptive norms focus on what women and men actually do in their typical social roles. Thus men have traditionally been viewed as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Each gender is thought to have qualities that are complementary with its social role. Eagly and Karau (2002) suggest that the majority of stereotypical beliefs about women and men pertain to communal and agentic attributes: 

Communal characteristics, which are ascribed more strongly to women, describe primarily a concern for the welfare of other people – for example, affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, and gentle. In contrast, agentic characteristics which are ascribed more strongly to men, describe primarily an assertive, controlling, and confident tendency – for example, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, and prone to act as a leader (p. 574). 

Injunctive norms focus on what society thinks that members of each gender ought to do or ideally would do. The combination of these descriptive and injunctive expectations produces gender stereotypes that portray “women as communal but not very agentic and men as agentic but not very communal” (p. 575). 

Congruity of Gender Roles and Leadership Roles

When such stereotypical gender roles are connected to leadership roles they are likely to produce perceptions of incongruity between the communal qualities associated with women and the role of a leader. The potential for prejudice against female leaders is inherent in the female gender role and its dissimilarity to typical expectations about leaders. Prejudice can arise “when perceivers judge women as actual or potential occupants of leader roles because of inconsistency between the predominantly communal qualities that perceivers associate with women and the predominantly agentic qualities that they believe are required to succeed as a leader” (Eagly and Karau, 2002, p. 575). This prejudice can take two forms: 

  1. less favorable evaluation of women’s potential for leadership because leadership ability is more stereotypical of men than women; and 

  2. less favorable evaluation of the actual leadership behavior of women than men because such behavior is perceived as less desirable in women than men. 

Social Attitudes toward Women in Leader Roles 

Do people have a less favorable attitude toward women then toward men in leader roles? Let’s test our own attitudes by answering the following questions: 

  1. “If you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?” Agree / Disagree? 

  2. “Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women” Agree / Disagree? 

  3. “If your party nominated a woman for president, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?” Agree / Disagree ? 

Do people have a less favorable attitude toward women then toward men in leader roles? The Gallup Pole has investigated this by asking respondents if they would prefer a male or a female boss. The responses for selected years ranging from 1953 to 2000 appear in Table 1. The responses demonstrate changing attitudes toward women in leadership roles. The general trend from 1953 to 2000 is greater acceptance of women as leaders. This changing attitude is demonstrated by both male and female respondents. Despite this trend, a strong preference for male bosses over female bosses was present for both sexes at all times. 

The General Social Survey conducted nationally in the USA records attitudes toward women and men as political leaders. Responses from 1982 to 1998 appear in Table 2 and show some overall intolerance of women compared with men in political roles, and an increasing tolerance for women between 1982 and 1998. In general, “attitudinal data show some disapproval of female leaders, although on a decreasing basis and sometimes with more disapproval on the part of male respondents” (Eagly and Karau, 2002, p. 581). 

Possibilities for Change 

How might the prejudice toward female leaders and potential leaders be lessened? Possible changes in gender roles and in leader roles might lessen prejudice. A change in gender role requires a general societal change in attitude toward the social roles of women and men. The data in Tables 1 and 2 indicate that such societal change in attitude is occurring and that there is decreasing approval of traditional gender differentiation. Eagly and Karau (2002) suggest that “women are a social group undergoing change ... characterized by an increase in agentic personality characteristics” (p. 590). This may increase women’s opportunities to assume traditional leadership roles.

Changes in the content of leader roles toward more communal characteristics and fewer agentic characteristics would allow the existing female gender role to be more congruent with leader roles. This would produce decreased prejudice and greater acknowledgement of the effectiveness of women leaders. Eagly and Karau (2002) assert that: 

To the extent that organizations shift away from a traditional view of leadership and toward the more democratic and participatory view advocated by many modern management scholars, women should experience reduced prejudice and gain increased representation and acceptance in leadership roles in the future (p. 591). 

Among these more democratic and participatory views of leadership are: 

  1. “Learning Organizations” which emphasize effective communication, supportiveness, participation, and team-based learning as central elements of organizational effectiveness; 

  2. “Continuous Quality Improvement” which emphasizes the importance of building cooperation rather than competition, developing teamwork skills, building long-term relationships with suppliers, empowering all employees to make decisions that can improve the quality of their work, and removing sources of fear and intimidation from the workplace; 

  3. “Feminine Leadership Models” which emphasize cooperation, participation, sharing information and power, and enhancing others’ self-worth. 

Changing Leadership Context

Eagly and Carli (2003) point out contemporary changes in theories and practices of leadership. They suggest that “whereas in the past leaders based their authority mainly on their access to political, economic, or military power, in postindustrial societies leaders share power far more and establish many collaborative relationships” (p. 809). Therefore, contemporary views of leadership encourage teamwork and collaboration and emphasize the ability to empower, support, and engage workers. Eagly and Carli suggest that these modern characterizations of effective leadership have become more consonant with the female gender role and thus provide an environment conducive to female leadership. Vecchio (2002) points out that this “feminine advantage” perspective “contends that women are more skilled at inclusiveness, interpersonal relations, power sharing, and the nurturing of followers” (p. 647). 

Yukl (2006) points to research indicating that effective leaders have strong interpersonal skills as well as decision making and competitive skills. Among these necessary interpersonal skills are “concern for building cooperative, trusting relationships, and use of behaviors traditionally viewed as feminine (e.g., supporting, developing, empowering)” (p. 427). While such values, skills, and behaviors were always relevant for effective leadership, Yukl suggests that they are now even more important because of changing conditions in organizations. In particular, the increasing cultural diversity of the workplace creates the need to build cooperative relationships based on “empathy, respect for diversity, and understanding of the values, beliefs, and attitudes of people from different cultures” (Yukl, 2006, 39). Changes in organizational structure toward team based and shared leadership models and the trend towards increased reliance by organizations on outside suppliers, consultants, and contractors also contribute towards the need for leaders to have strong interpersonal skills.


Transformational Leadership 

The theory of transformational leadership (Avolio, Bass, & Jung, 1999; Bass, 1985, 1998; Bass & Avolio, 1995; Judge & Piccolo, 2004; Lowe, Kroeck, & Sivasubramaniam, 1996) has been a significant focus of leadership literature since it was first proposed by Burns (1978). Transformational leadership can be defined as “inspirational leadership aimed at motivating followers to achieve organizational goals whilst emphasizing the importance of follower well-being and need fulfillment” (Panopoulos, 1999, 2). 

Transformational leadership encompasses behaviors that previously might have been characterized as being either masculine or feminine. These behaviors include idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Yammarino & Bass, 1990). Idealized influence involves the leader’s role in demonstrating by personal example how to work toward the vision of the organization. Inspirational motivation is the leader’s ability to provide followers with a clear and compelling vision, high standards of operation, and a sense of meaningfulness in their work. Intellectual stimulation refers to the leader’s interaction with followers so as to challenge their thinking and methodologies and to encourage within them creativity and innovation. Individualized consideration involves the leader’s attention to the unique gifts and talents of each follower and the leader’s ability to mentor followers with challenges and opportunities that suit each individual (Avolio, Bass, & Jung, 1999; Bass, 1985; Yammarino & Bass, 1990; Yammarino, Spangler, & Bass, 1993). 

Transactional Leadership

Transformational leadership is contrasted with transactional leadership. Transactional leaders obtain cooperation by establishing exchanges with followers and then monitoring the exchange relationship. Bass (1985) posited four dimensions underlying transactional leadership: (1) contingent reward; (2) management by exception – active; (3) management by exception – passive; and (4) laissez-faire leadership. Contingent reward is providing an adequate exchange of valued resources for follower support. The leader appeals to followers’ self-interest by establishing exchange relationships with them. He or she outlines tasks and performance standards and followers agree to complete assignments in exchange for commensurate compensation. Management by exception – active involves monitoring performance and taking corrective action. Management by exception – passive means intervening only when problems become serious. Both active and passive management by exception involve enforcing rules to avoid mistakes. Laissez-faire leadership is non-leadership. It “is marked by a general failure to take responsibility for managing” (Eagly et al., 2003, 571). Evidence suggests that contingent reward is displayed by effective leaders, but that the three other transactional leadership dimensions are negatively related to effective leadership (Judge & Bono, 2000). 

Women as Transformational Leaders 

Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen (2003) in a meta-analysis of 45 studies of transformational and transactional leadership styles found that women used slightly more transformational leadership behavior than men. The primary difference was for individualized consideration, which includes focusing on development and mentoring of followers and attending to their individual needs. They also found that women used slightly more contingent reward behavior of transactional leadership, which involves providing rewards for satisfactory performance by followers. By contrast, men used slightly more active and passive management by exception and laissez-faire leadership. These gender differences were small but consistent across the meta-analysis as a whole. 

Eagly and Carli (2003) suggest that transformational leadership may be especially advantageous for women because it encompasses some behaviors that are consistent with traditionally female supportive, considerate behaviors. This suggestion accords with the findings of Druskat (1994) and Daughtry and Finch (1997). Druskat found that women in Roman Catholic orders displayed significantly more transformational leadership than did men. Daughtry and Finch, in a study of leadership effectiveness of 144 vocational administrators as a function of leadership style, found that females rated higher as transformational leaders than their male counterparts. Females rated higher on four of the five factors of the transformational leadership construct both on self – and other – ratings with a significant difference noted for intellectual stimulation in self ratings. The findings of both of these studies agree with the results of Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, and van Engen’s (2003) meta-analysis which found that women used slightly more transformational leadership behavior than did men. 


Judges 4:8-9 (New International Version) 

Barak said to her, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go." 

"Very well," Deborah said, "I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, [a] the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman." So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh,


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Bel Litchfield