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JOBXXX10.1177/2329488415598429International Journal of Business CommunicationWalker and Aritz
Women Doing Leadership:
Leadership Styles and
International Journal of
2015, Vol. 52(4) 452–478
© The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permissions:
Robyn C. Walker1 and Jolanta Aritz1
Although women in the United States make up about half of the workforce, only 14.6%
of executive officer positions in the Fortune 500 and 16.9% of Fortune 500 board
of director seats in 2013 were held by women, numbers that have remained flat for
the past decade. Decades after the so-called “feminist revolution,” women are still
struggling to be seen as leaders within organizations even though many have put in place
hiring and recruitment policies to help eliminate this problem. Our study examines this
disparity by observing how leadership emerges and is negotiated in discourse among
male and female participants in decision-making groups in a masculine organizational
culture. First, it identifies whether female participants randomly assigned to mixedgender groups emerge as leaders. Second, it analyzes the discourse of those competing
for leadership positions in mixed groups to identify the effects of leadership style on
leader attribution by others. Of the 22 mixed-gender groups (N = 110) that took
part in our study, no woman emerged as the unanimously chosen leader, even though
women were identified as leaders by transcript coders. This article uses a case study
approach to analyze leadership emergence in two mixed groups in which women were
recognized by some members as demonstrating leadership. It then looks at a third
case that demonstrates how some discourse behaviors that have been recognized as
leadership may not be viewed as such in a masculine organizational culture. Study results
illustrate how organizational culture can define accepted ways of “doing” leadership and
affect who is and who is not recognized as a leader, particularly in terms of gender.
turn-taking, leadership communication, gender and leadership, discourse analysis,
of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Robyn C. Walker, University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business, Trousdale Parkway,
ACC 400, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA.
Walker and Aritz
Although women in the United States make up about half of the workforce, only
14.6% of executive officer positions in the Fortune 500 companies in 2013 were held
by women, a number that has remained flat for the past decade (Soares, Bartkiewicz,
& Mulligan-Ferry, 2013). That year, women held only 16.9% of Fortune 500 board of
director seats, the same level as 2012 (Soares et al., 2013). Much has happened since
the women’s movement that arose in the 1960s to better integrate women into the
public sphere, but even after more than 50 years, they still lag behind men in leadership positions. This problem has been tackled by many organizations at the policy
level, by putting in place programs to recruit and promote women, but as the numbers
indicate, this approach has been far from successful.
Our study attempts to better understand this phenomenon by observing how leadership emerges and is negotiated in discourse among male and female participants in
decision-making groups in a masculine organizational culture. It first identifies whether
female participants randomly assigned to mixed-gender groups emerge as leaders.
Second, it analyzes the discourse of those competing for leadership positions in mixedgender groups to identify the effects of leadership style on leader attribution by others.
This study attempts to bring together research from two approaches to the study of
leadership: what has been called the “psychological” approach and the discursive
approach. It does so by first asking participants to identify the leaders of their group by
identifying specific communicative traits they observed; we then look at the talk that is
exhibited in the group interaction and how it creates certain leadership styles (Aritz &
Walker, 2014). Ultimately, we are interested in looking at whether and how organizational culture affects the type of leadership that is recognized in mixed groups of men
and women and how leadership is negotiated within a masculine organizational culture.
Discourse Studies in Leadership and Gender
An increasing body of research is studying leadership by looking at language and
approaching the phenomenon as an act of social constructionism (Alvesson &
Kärreman, 2000; Fairhurst, 2007, 2009). From this perspective, leadership is viewed
in the context of what leaders do and is thus discursive in nature. According to
Robinson (2001), “leadership is exercised when ideas expressed in talk or actions are
recognized by others as capable of progressing tasks or problems which are important
to them” (p. 93). According to Fairhurst (2008), this definition enables us to understand leadership as a process of influence and meaning management that advances a
talk or goal, an attribution made by followers or observers, and a process, in which
influence may shift and distribute itself among several organizational members. “To
wit, leadership is co-constructed, a product of sociohistorical and collective meaningmaking, and negotiated on an ongoing basis through a complex interplay among leadership actors, be they designated or emergent leaders, managers, followers, or both”
(Fairhurst & Grant, 2010, p. 210).
This perspective contrasts with the psychological approach to leadership, which is
prevalent in management studies, particularly in the United States, where a psychological lens and traditional empiricist methods still dominate (Alvesson & Sveningsson,
International Journal of Business Communication 52(4)
2003; Conger, 1998; Fairhurst, 2007; Knights & Wilmott, 1992). The concern of this
approach is with the cognitive or social-cognitive origins of leadership and the perceptions they generate with weight given to the mental over the behavioral (Fairhurst,
2007). From this perspective, leadership is seen as residing within the individual and
is often associated with certain personality traits divorced from the organizational
More and more researchers, though, are treating language as a methodological question and a window into cultural meanings. A linguistic focus is also enabling scholars to
rethink traditional approaches to business issues and in doing so, to reveal more nuanced
details about how such issues as leadership are “brought off” (Fairhurst, 2007).
Like leadership, gender is a social construct. Gender is different from biological sex.
It is a social patterning that has been created over time and that has been passed down
from generation to generation within a culture. It is learned behavior that we enact each
day to “create” our gendered selves. We do so through our clothing and accessory
choices, our mannerisms, our vocal qualities, the way we walk, and talk, and the things
we say and do, all activities that can be broadly thought of as communication if we
understand that communication is a symbol system that conveys meaning to others
through the process of perception. The meanings associated with specific communication displays over time have become coded as “male” or “female” and have thus created
stereotypes that we rely on in order to make meaning of our environment.
Social constructionist theory contends that there are mainstream discourses of
“gender difference” circulating in Western culture (e.g., Cameron, 2006; Sunderland,
2004), with the effect that the biological category of “men” is positioned to speak and
behave in ways stereotypically coded as “masculine,” while “women” are positioned
to speak and behave in ways coded as “feminine,” even though individuals can and do
resist such stereotypical positioning.
Elements of Talk: Latching, Overlaps, and Questions
Discourse studies have thus focused on how features of talk are coded as feminine or
masculine. For example, Coates (1996) found that women tend to construct talk jointly
and that the group takes priority over the individual as women’s voices combine to
construct a shared text. Utterances are often jointly constructed; in other words, speakers often cooperate to produce a chunk of talk. In addition, Coates observed that women
friends often combine as speakers so that two or more voices may contribute to talk at
the same time. This kind of overlapping speech is not seen as competitive, as a way of
grabbing a turn, because the various contributions to talk are on the same theme.
Women’s talk is also characterized by the frequent use of questions whose main
function is interactive rather than information seeking (i.e., the question, “there are
limits aren’t there?” checks that a shared perspective obtains and does not expect an
answer except perhaps for “yeah” or “mhm”; Coates, 1996).
While women’s voices combine and overlap, men take turns to hold court. Male
friends prefer a one-at-a-time pattern of talking, with one speaker holding the floor for
an extended period at any one time; overlapping speech is avoided and is viewed as
Walker and Aritz
Table 1. Widely Cited Characteristics of “Feminine” and “Masculine” Styles.
Minor contribution (in public)
Dominates speaking time publicly
Source. Adapted from Holmes and Stubbe (2003).
contentious for seeking the floor. In terms of questions, men use them to seek information from each other, taking it in turns to play the expert. Table 1 below identifies
widely cited characteristics of “male” and “female” talk.
Elements of Talk: Amount of Talk
In more formal situations, the majority of studies find that men talk more than women.
This outcome has been attributed to status characteristics theory, which focuses on
how status differences organize interaction (Capella, 1985; Slater, 1966; Stein &
Heller, 1979). According to this theory, individuals involved in social interactions
evaluate themselves relative to the other individuals involved and come to hold expectations as to how and how well they will perform in relation to every other participant
in the interaction (Capella, 1985; Slater, 1966; Stein & Heller, 1979). These “self-other
performance expectations” provide the structure of the interaction, which then determines the subsequent interaction.
Research has shown that those with higher status participate more in task-oriented
dyads or groups than those with lower status (Capella, 1985; Slater, 1966; Stein &
Heller, 1979). Since men have traditionally held higher status than have women, one
would expect men to talk more in task-oriented or instrumental situations.
Elements of Talk and Leadership Style
In our research on leadership styles (Aritz & Walker, 2014), we found that overlaps
and questions were also used differently by different types of leaders (see Table 1). A
directive leader uses questions to direct agreement on interaction participants, does not
link his or her comments to the previous speaker’s statement, and makes abrupt topic
shifts as well as uses minimal active listening techniques and tends to interrupt other
speakers. Our research has indicated that those using the directive style often talk significantly more than others participating in the interaction. As such, the directive leadership style shares many of the common elements of what Coates has identified in
masculine gendered talk.
International Journal of Business Communication 52(4)
In contrast, a cooperative leader uses questions to solicit information or participation from others, acknowledges the position or statement of previous speakers, avoids
abrupt topic shifts, uses active listening techniques, and uses cooperative overlaps to
show her support of other’s ideas. Our research indicates that those using a cooperative leadership style significantly reduce the imbalance of talk between leader and
followers. Because of this as well as the use of questions and cooperative overlaps of
this type of leader, this style is more in line with Coates’s description of feminine talk.
A third leadership style, collaborative, is also known as “distributed leadership,”
which is defined as a property that emerges in team situations in which influence is
distributed across multiple team members (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007). In this
style, participants use questions to frame the interaction and to check for agreement
among members, acknowledge some of the contribution of others but more commonly
build on other’s statements producing smooth topic shifts, even though these contributions may overlap with those of others.
Organizational Culture and Communities of Practice
Workplace settings play a critical role in the construction and enactment of members’
social identities. Organizations are “minicultures” that provide “sources and sites of
identification for individuals” (Aaltio & Mills, 2002; Jenkins, 1996). More specifically, organizations contribute to the construction of member identities in at least two
ways: They classify members into roles that have particular meanings and they develop
discursive norms from which members draw to interact with others (Schnurr, 2009).
Through these processes, organizations create leaders and subordinates.
Each organizational culture is different in the norms they provide to individuals to
construct their roles. Hofstede (1980, 1998) describes masculine and feminine national
cultures as representing the sex role pattern that is dominant in a given society and
further suggests the masculinity-femininity dimension of a nation’s culture is reflected
by organizations within that culture. Masculine cultures, such as Japan and Italy,
emphasize the need for men to be successful breadwinners or be viewed as failures,
and relatively few women occupy higher paying executive and top management positions. In Hofstede’s typology, American culture is considered moderately high in
In feminine cultures, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, it is the norm for both
men and women to pursue higher paying careers, and both males and females receive
cultural support for prioritizing family time over time spent on the job. The women in
higher level positions in these cultures are not necessarily expected to be assertive or
to display the qualities and behaviors that are considered traditionally masculine
(Hofstede 1980). Lyness and Kropf (2005) found that nations characterized as having
feminine cultures tend to have organizational cultures that support work and family
American organizations typically are characterized by a competitive, masculine
organizational culture, which aligns with our “masculine” national culture. This organizational culture values respect for authority, competition, individualism, independence, and task orientation (Loden, 1985; Maier, 1999). Authoritarian management
Walker and Aritz
practices, respect for hierarchical structures, and adherence to chain-of-command are
emphasized. Other values associated with a competitive organizational culture are
assertive and aggressive behavior toward external or internal competitors and emphasis on individual, extrinsic rewards.
Supportive, feminine organizational cultures value and respect participation, collaboration, egalitarianism, and interpersonal relationships (Maier, 1999). There is less
emphasis on hierarchical control; the supportive organizational culture focuses on
group rather than individual rewards and places less emphasis on extrinsic rewards
relative to intrinsic rewards (Loden, 1985). The cultural values associated with a supportive culture promote a balance of career and family roles, while competitive organizational cultures value commitment to the organization and the expectation that an
employee’s career should be given priority over other roles (Maier, 1999).
In contrast to organizational culture, discourse researchers have used the concept of
communities of practice as a means of identifying the linguistic strategies members
use to negotiate organizational identity. A community of practice is an aggregate of
people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor.
Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations—in short, practices—emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavor (Eckert &
McConnell-Ginet, 1992). A community of practice is different as a social construct
from the traditional notion of community, primarily because it is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages. It is
the practices of the community and members’ differentiated participation in them that
structures the community.
Speakers develop linguistic patterns as they engage in activity in the various communities in which they participate. In actual practice, social meaning, social identity,
community membership, forms of participation, the full range of community practices, and the symbolic value of linguistic form are being constantly and mutually
constructed (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992). The linguistic practices of any given
community of practice are continually changing as a result of the many features that
come into play through the interaction of its multiple members. In particular, organizations “provide a repertoire of procedures, contracts, rules, processes, and policies” that
are then incorporated by the various communities of practice “into their own practices
in order to decide in specific situations what they mean in practice, when to comply
with them and when to ignore them” (Wenger, 1998, p. 245). Leaders and other organizational actors draw on this linguistic repertoire as well as the norms and values of
their workplace culture to produce their discursive behaviors.
Workplace culture is thus a “communicative construction” that is “created and recreated as people interact over time” (Modaff & DeWine, 2002, p. 88). It is a system of
shared meanings and values as reflected in the discursive and behavioral norms typically displayed by members that distinguishes the group or organization from others.
It should be noted that organizations may be made up of multiple subcultures that may
“co-exist in harmony, conflict, or indifference to each other” (Frost, Moore, Louis,
Lundberg, & Martin, 1991, p. 8). Workplace culture contributes significantly to the
establishment of norms and expectations about leadership by defining what competent
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and effective leadership means (Hickman, 1998; Schein, 1992). The relationship
between workplace culture and leadership, though, is complex in that leaders themselves also play an important role in the creation, maintenance, and change of workplace culture (Neuhauser, Bender, & Stromberg, 2000; Parry & Proctor-Thomson,
2003; Schein, 1992).
Gender is also produced and reproduced in differential forms of participation in
particular communities of practice. Women tend to be subordinate to men in the workplace; for example, women in the military have not traditionally engaged in combat,
and in the academy, most theoretical disciplines are overwhelmingly male with women
concentrated in descriptive and applied disciplines that “support” theorizing. The relations among communities of practice when ...