Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices

June 12, 2008

I opened this book with enthusiasm. It is an edited collection exploring women and leadership, its approach is overtly feminist and concerned with power in various ways, and it highlights issues of diversity among women. There is much to appreciate.

The first refreshing feature is that the book's development process matches its espoused values of inclusion, collaboration and dialogue. As president of the Society for the Psychology of Women (a division of the American Psychological Association), Jean Lau Chin initiated a web-based dialogue during 2002-03 among feminist psychologist leaders to identify how women lead. This involved 15 web-based discussion boards, nurtured by teleconferences and face-to-face meetings. More than 100 women participated. The dialogues are archived at www.feministleadership.com. The book draws on this material. It is, then, located in the US, academia and psychology, but is of wider interest and a valuable research resource.

Women and Leadership explores the aspirations, achievements and experiences of feminist women leaders. Its three parts review: models of leadership and women (partly concluding, of course, that much literature on leadership pays scant attention to issues of gender); collaboration as a key feature of women's leadership; and diversity among feminist leaders. People are understood as situated in socio-political systems rather than individualised, and leadership is in context. The chapters on black feminist, Asian American, American Indian and lesbian women, and women with disabilities, are especially valuable contributions. They help to appropriately complexify working at intersections of multiple differences, a theme throughout the book.

The notion of transformational leadership is a key motif. This is depicted as collaborative, visionary, enabling others to contribute and develop, change-oriented and often activist. It can be contrasted with transactional leadership, seen as more directive and task-oriented, working through rewards to achieve stated organisational goals. The book's authors do not emphasise this common, over-neat distinction, but they do argue that feminist leadership is necessarily transformational, avoiding oppressive hierarchic uses of power, and value-based. Demanding checklists of feminist leadership are offered.

Transformational leadership is an aspirational notion. I too find it appealing, especially when I see it skilfully enacted, by women and men, for purposes of which I approve. While these chapters provide evidence for how it can be achieved, I wanted the notion also to be brought down to earth, made less glamorous, more contentious, showing its rough edges. As I read on, the challenges of enacting such leadership were explored. Organisational contexts, especially if "highly masculinised", are often hostile to transformational approaches; sometimes collaboration appears insufficiently authoritative or, especially if done by women, is not seen as productive. I would have welcomed more appreciation of the interplays between acting with authority and doing collaboration. Compulsive participation has limitations for leaders and those around them. And what does skilful transformational practice look like in situations marked by conflict?

In relation to gender and leadership, issues of naming and valuing are contentious and power-related. As other sources have done, this book tentatively connects an appealing trail of reasoning. Studies can be quoted to suggest that women leaders more often than men adopt participative and transformational approaches. The latter can be identified as necessary for the development of organisations in changing times. This might imply that women would be favoured as leaders. But here the logic runs dry, because this is not the case. Women and Leadership explores some of the reasons why, providing elaboration for Alice Eagly's summation in the foreword that "leadership remains a different experience for women and men".

If I could add to Women and Leadership I have two wishes. One would open up discussions of leadership as embodied, inquiring into potential gender associations. Amanda Sinclair's "Body possibilities in leadership", in the journal Leadership (2005), would be valuable here. Secondly, I would invite the authors to turn their critical feminist lens on psychology itself. Its conduct, analytic categories, research approaches and positivist underpinnings seem to reflect constrained, value-laden choices similar to those the book critiques in leadership, open to transformation to support radical scholarship.

Above I described this book as "overtly feminist". In much management science, "feminist" has become a devalued identity, one to eschew, deny or mask - as in "I am not a feminist, but ..." It is refreshing to encounter a sustained exploration into leadership and activism that claims this identity without apology. In this sense, too, the book mirrors its message - that feminist women leaders are expected to be overt about their positioning and values.

Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices

Edited by Jean Lau Chin, Bernice Lott, Joy K. Rice and Janis Sanchez-Hucles
Blackwell Publishing
408pp
£60.00 and £29.99
ISBN 9781405155823 and 55830
Published 10 May 2007

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