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Untangling the Tightrope that Female Leaders Need to Walk: Groundbreaking Work Wins 2020 Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award

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On the path to getting ahead in organizations, men and women leaders need to behave in ways that are ambitious, self-confident, independent, competent (i.e., be agentic) in order to be promoted and be seen as ‘leaders.’ However, robust research suggests that, when these behaviors are enacted by women (but not by men), agency can lead to a social and economic backlash. Indeed, dozens of studies over decades have shown that this puts women in a precarious position – if women are dominant or assertive, they often become labeled as ‘too bossy,’ whereas men who engage in the exact same behaviors would not be punished, and in fact may be rewarded and promoted for their ‘leadership.’

Although some of these research findings have been consistent, there is still some confusion about what happens when men and women act in ‘agentic’ ways – and scholars have been trying to find a way to reconcile these inconsistencies. For example, although robust research has shown that agentic women are penalized, some recent research suggests that women can be rewarded when they are perceived as agentic.

Our dissertation award winner convincingly demonstrates that agency has many different facets and that whether agentic women are penalized or rewarded depends on the type of agency.

Meet Dr. Anyi Ma, an assistant professor of management at Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, whose work on the implications of agency for gender and leadership earned the 2020 Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award presented by the Center for Leadership at FIU.

Established 9 years ago by the Center in partnership with the Network of Leadership Scholars, this global award honors an individual whose dissertation makes an outstanding contribution to the field of leadership. Dr. Ma will present her findings at the Leadership Research Colloquium in Spring 2021. The award also includes a $3,000 cash prize.

Dr. Ma’s dissertation, entitled “The Ambitious-Dominant-Ability (ADA) Model of Agency for Gender and Leadership,” explores the different faces of ‘agency’ and finds that we can’t just lump being dominant, assertive, driven, competence, etc. all into the same bucket. Indeed, intuitively, someone who might be driven may not be dominant. Similarly, self-assuredness feels distinct from assertiveness. We should instead be thinking about each of these dimensions differently so that we can better understand when and how certain biases show up, as well as how individuals and organizations can better level the playing field to maximize opportunities for leadership.

To understand the various ways in which agency has been measured, she conducted a literature review of over a thousand articles and found that there are six distinct types of agency. Ambitious agency includes status-seeking, aspire to lead, and ambition; dominant agency includes aggressive, dominant, controlling forceful, and manipulative; competent agency is measured as competent, capable, skillful, and masterful with a “task-focused orientation”; those with self-assured agency are self-assured, self-efficacy, confident, have convictions, and are willing to take a stand; hardworking agency is measured as active, dedicated, task-oriented, and hardworking; and independent agency focuses on independence and self-reliance as Ma defines as “capable of acting on one’s own without relying on others.”

Differentiating between the six types of agency is important because doing so changes our understanding of previous findings in gender and leadership. Consistent with past research, she found that women are penalized insofar as they are perceived as dominant. However, what was exciting is that women can be perceived as even more effective leaders than men when they are judged as highly self-assured, hardworking, independent, and competent.

“With people you know well, it may be easier to discern different shades of agency. So currently I’m looking at whether some researchers lump various agency qualities together because they tend to use hypothetical vignettes and ask people to evaluate the agency of targets who they don’t know very well,” she said.

“Another exciting line of future research is to examine if we can help dominant women avoid gender backlash by reframing behaviors in more positive ways. It’s a fine balancing act and has deep implications for gender and leadership. For example, on a practical level, for managers who are training and cultivating women leaders, or even among coworkers or family, it might be helpful to reframe assertive and dominant behaviors as self-confidence or even passion."

“What is exciting about Dr. Ma’s research is not only the methodological rigor but the important implications of her work,” said Dr. Nathan Hiller, executive director for the Center for Leadership.

“The award committee – composed of 11 scholars from Germany, Canada, The Netherlands, and the US recognized that her work has significant potential for others to build on and shift the conversations we’re having about gender and leadership – and hold promise in producing better remedies than what is currently available. It will be exciting to see how this gets implemented by scholars and organizations in the coming years,” Dr. Hiller said.

Going forward, Dr. Ma aims to use the ADA model to enable leaders to better manage impressions in the workplace. Ideally, when managers and CEOs see behaviors they perceive as dominant, she hopes to find a way that will help them appraise these behaviors in a more positive way. Dr. Ma believes the ADA model of agency can serve as a meaningful framework that facilitates a more nuanced investigation of the leadership challenges that women experience at the workplace.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award,” she said. “Indeed, more than ever before, we need to find ways to ensure that women and other minority-group leaders are well represented in positions of leadership. I hope that my multifactor model of agency will invigorate future research on the leadership challenges that women and other minority groups experience and also empower these leaders to become more agentic at work."


About the writer

Jeff Zbar
South Florida native Jeff Zbar has enjoyed a 30-plus year freelance career as a journalist, editor, author, and marketing copywriter. His portfolio of print and digital work appears in media outlets and for corporate clients across all areas of business and industry.