Women and leadership: A study of women leaders in psychology

Kathleen Brigid Trainor (1996)

This qualitative study explores the experiences of women in positions of leadership in Psychology. A feminist postmodern perspective was applied. Semi-standard interviews served to facilitate the exploration of the relevant issues concerning gender and leadership. The study sample consisted of 22 women aged 40 to mid 60s from around the country who are leaders in psychology. The areas of inquiry included the gratifying and frustrating aspects of being a woman leader in Psychology today, experiences with being mentored and mentoring others, and relationships with other women. The results of this study demonstrates the enthusiasm and gratification these women feel in their role as leaders. Having the power to influence the field of psychology was experienced as very exciting and fulfilling. Women who had mentors in their career found it valuable to their professional development. The majority of these women value the importance of mentoring others. These women leaders find tremendous support from their professional relationships with other women. The ability to integrate professional and personal elements in their relationships with women is highly valued. Some participants at times feel the expectation from others to be more nurturing as leaders then men. The feeling that they should be the "good mother" can be experienced as diminishing of their authority and limiting their leadership style. Most of these women described their leadership style as different from a more traditional hierarchical approach. Gender alone was not perceived as accounting for this difference. The thoughtful application of a feminist value system, which can be done by men as well as women, was often described as a significant factor. Feminism was identified by some participants as useful throughout their careers to prevent the internalization of gender discrimination. The diversity among feminists was acknowledged with extreme feminism cited as making it more difficult at times for women to constructively criticize other women and expect individual accountability. These women may expect more from other women. Women are frequently expected to be more egalitarian, inclusive, supportive and empowering of women. Unresolvable conflicts with other women are experienced as rare and often understood as the result of individual competitive personality styles. The women in this study recognized the limits of understanding gender bias as intentional actions of men against women. Subtle discrimination was adequently mentioned as common, and difficult to identify and challenge. The need for both women and men to work towards styles of leadership that are inclusive and promote women was stressed. Suggestions for future research was noted including the need to study a larger, more diverse group of women leaders. The interaction of race and class with gender has not been adequately studied. The awareness and experience of gender issues among male leaders is also an area to explore.