Breaking Down Masculinity in Leadership

To young adults, especially those of us fortunate enough to attend university, it can feel like leadership is touted at us everywhere we go. 

Now, I love leadership. I am a representative of the Hamline Undergraduate Student Congress (HUSC), I am a Leadership Programs Coordinator for the Student Activities and Leadership Development Office… it’s something I really enjoy, and have for a long time. 

However, recently I have been thinking about the history of leadership, specifically how masculinity plays into it. That has lead me to a question: 

Why is leadership still associated with masculinity? 

A leader is often portrayed as confident, authoritative, take-charge—all attributes stereotypically categorized as masculine. Meanwhile, women are stereotypically quiet, and non-confrontational, the exact opposite of what our society tells us what a leader should be. 

Now, the fact that people think a leader must be this extroverted, dynamic, compelling individual is a huge issue in itself. Anyone can be a leader if they put their mind to it, no matter their personal characteristics. 

My issue today, though, is how the attributes most commonly seen in leadership are stereotypically labeled as masculine. 

Firstly, that labeling degrades feminine women in leadership positions. Now, I know myself. I am a loud person, I like to be in control of things, and my fake-it-til-you-make-it confidence is through the roof. But, I am still a woman, and a feminine one. I am also a leader. Those identities can and do coexist. 

Secondly, it tells introverted people that they cannot be leaders, which is completely false. One of my best friends is one of the quietest, most introverted people I know, and she is an incredible leader. But, it took her a long time to realize that she could be a leader just the way she is. This goes for shy men as well. 

Another issue with this situation is how it further defines stereotypes for men. Men are expected to be leaders, and they are expected to be these outgoing, self-assured people. By making leadership stereotypically masculine, it tells men that if they are not these things, they are not a man, which is completely false. What’s more, the ‘masculinity’ it promotes is extremely toxic.

There is also a problem in the way we describe female leaders. Another friend of mine once said, “I hate the word bossy and refuse to use it. You would never describe a man as bossy, so I will never use it to describe a woman.” 

She’s right. A man is take-charge while a woman is power-hungry. A man is confident while a woman is conceited. I have heard these differences in the way my female friends (and myself) are described as opposed to my male friends. These are harmful ideals that push women away from leadership and convince them to not stand up for themselves, both in official positions and in their daily lives. 

We need to destroy this inherent idea that leadership is a man’s world and that for women to be leaders, they have to take on stereotypically masculine characteristics. It promotes unhealthy stereotypes for women and men, and it denies our society from benefiting from the exceptional leadership that exists in people who do not fit in these boxes. 

We need to change this. Men, call out this harmful masculinity when you see it. Women, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. My quiet friends, know that you are just as capable a leader as the extroverts in the room.

No one has to be a leader, but everyone deserves the chance to be one. Leadership is not ‘just’ a man’s game, so let’s go out into our leadership spaces and make that clear. In the end, we will all benefit from it.