Project leadership: style versus gender
Published: 14 May 2015
In response to Sharon De Mascia’s Guest Editorial, Charles Smith warns that ‘feminine’ styles of project leadership should not be assumed to be ‘better’, and reminds us that nobody should be precluded from performing a leadership role in the style of the opposite gender.
The position of women in project leadership, and specifically their under-representation, is an important topic, so it is good to see the issues surrounding this subject laid out so clearly in Sharon De Mascia’s article Are women better suited to project leadership than men?. It is also of interest to me as a researcher, to review my own findings in relation to these issues.
In my research (Playing the Project Manager) I ask managers (male and female) to tell me stories about their handling of project challenges.
Matters of gender are not an explicit target of the research, but if gender is an important issue in project lives I would expect to see that reflected in the stories told to me. However, in the stories I have collected, gender is never explicitly presented as an issue. There is no evidence that I have seen that suggests that men or women are restricted in their managerial options because of their gender (although this conclusion may be specific to the culture of my contributors, in the UK, the USA and Australia).
On the other hand the gender narrative put forward – that women bring something different and valuable to the project stage – clearly has some relevance. The project stories told to me appear to show a gender bias: women for the telling of stories about collaboration; men for stories about competitive struggles (which they invariably win). So is this indicative of how they are? In fact I also see, within those stories, plenty of contra-evidence. For example, in one story a woman project leader complains that her male colleagues are too relationship-focused with their client; in another a woman committed to collaborative management gives direction as the absolute authority at the moment of decision.
Despite this evidence of commonality, the concept of gender difference brings important benefits. In particular it can ease the way for women to enter into the profession who might otherwise think of project management as an aggressive male domain. Women may perhaps be encouraged by the special value they can bring to the field, their inclination towards ‘transformational’ styles of leadership. I think that this, perhaps, is the explanation for the preference women have for stories in this style.
The matter of gender in project leadership is thus framed by a recognised differentiation of preference between women and men: between collaboration and competitiveness, and between transformational and transactional concepts of management.
However, I do take issue with research findings claiming that such feminised styles of leadership are demonstrably more effective. This is too simplistic.
Yes, they may often be more effective, but there will also be many occasions when masculine ‘transactional’ leadership is needed, perhaps to drive a strategic change of direction. Those ‘male’ stories of skilled manoeuvres are not misbehaviours or aberrations; they are another vital component of organisational life. They should be in the performance repertoire of any aspiring manager.
Leadership styles may be described, quite reasonably, as either masculine and feminine, but in practice, as my research shows, we find both men and women taking up the opposite style, if they have the ability, when occasion demands.
Those women who might wish to break through that glass ceiling are not prisoners of their gender values. They will find ways and opportunities – to adapt, to learn, to justify – and put into effect those varied leadership performances when they need them to advance their ambitions.