Is Authentic Leadership Stuck on Gender Norms?

female leaderThe ironic thing about authentic leadership is that it’s defined by others.

You can aspire to act authentically as a leader based on what it means to you, but authentic leadership ultimately gets attributed to you -not by you.

We’ve seen how defining authenticity too narrowly can become a self-defining box that holds you back from growing as a leader, keeping you from daring to evolve into unfamiliar territories which could catalyse growth to expand.

Authenticity – What does that mean for women?

According to Dr. Helena Liu and her co-authors Cutcher and Grant in their study “Doing Authenticity: The Gendered Construction of Authentic Leadership”, authenticity is not a trait that we “have” or “are”, but a performance we “do”. So too, they argue, citing many studies, is gender. The researchers argue that looking at authenticity as a genderless true-to-self concept is a fallacy.

Authentic/inauthentic, when we’re talking subjectively about people, is a binary and limiting social construct. Just like gender. The two are interwoven in the representation of authentic leadership.

The research found that when it comes to how high profile leaders are perceived, authenticity is socially co-constructed by the media and gender expectations play a big role. The study found “doing authenticity requires leaders to conform to gender norms.”

Liu and colleagues analyzed verbal and visual media representations (across 266 articles) of two CEOS, one male and one female (first and only to date), of Australia’s largest banks before and after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

They wanted to explore how Mike Smith of ANZ and Gail Kelly at Westpac “performed authenticity” for the media as well as how the media drew on gendered stereotypes and norms in constructing the leaders as either authentic or inauthentic as industry conditions changed.

Their research illustrates how a woman whose leadership publically benefited from the outsider-inferred status of gender norms also found her authenticity conditionally latched to them.

Capitalizing on Gendered Leadership

Before the crisis arrived, the researchers found that both CEOS seemed to “perform” and were depicted with highly gendered leadership styles. Each leader seemed to play on their gender capital and the media verbally and visually accentuated gender norms.

Mike Smith used sporting metaphors to talk about himself and the company, positioning himself as a tough trainer who would get the weak athlete (ANZ) strong again. Media and imagery reflected him as bringing a “hyper-masculine”, “James Bond” “change agent” style approach to the leadership. He tended to be depicted on his own, with salient positioning, as the essence of the message.

Recruited to WestPac from her position as St George CEO, Gail Kelly’s idealogical focus on “customer satisfaction” and her “people-orientation” were emphasized as core to her success record.

Her leadership was depicted as “family-friendly” and her firm as “family.” Media and imagery focused on relationships with customers and staff, depicting her as a heralded industry outsider with “her personal demeanour” and emphasis on promoting work/life balance. Imagery emphasized her “feminized warm and relational image,” and she was usually depicted visually with others to convey relationship-building.

According to Liu’s piece for a volume about “Gender, Media and Organization”, “the media by and large heralded Kelly’s gender as a welcome change from the traditional image of a banker” with her leadership identity resting “on assumptions of femininity as inherently caring and nurturing.”

Both leaders were cast in a narrow box of gendered leadership and each were constructed in the media as doing authenticity, or “doing gender in line with stereotypes.”

When Gendered Leadership Backfires on Authenticity

When the global financial crisis hit Australia Mr. Smith’s language in the press included “carnage”, “an Armageddon situation,” and a “financial services bloodbath” and the media reflected back with talk of “plenty of financial firepower,” the “largest war chest,” and a “no nonsense officer.” ANZ’s rapid acquisitions were “applauded by the media and framed as reflecting the bank’s newfound strength and aggressive strategy of international expansion.”

But according to the study, in the context of Ms.Kelly’s leadership the media depicted the financial crisis as “an uncertain and fragile situation that invited careful and considered response.” When she took pro-active and decisive action to raise interest rates first and acquire St George, Kelly’s leadership was seen as out of step with the both the situation at hand as well as her caring and nurturing leadership identity. Her authenticity was thrown into question across the media, and actions were depicted as “predatory,” including a reference to the merger as “akin to a mother eating her children.” Her attempts to revive positive “family” metaphors fell flat.

Both CEOs took action, but because the situation and their leadership was constructed through gendered norms, the actions they took were rendered authentic or inauthentic. Aggressive action suited Smith’s gendered leadership persona in the aggressive situation he was framed in but betrayed Kelly’s gendered leadership persona in the fragile and uncertain situation she was framed in, in which she was expected to care and nurture.

How Can You Avoid Being Boxed In?

The research highlights how gendered norms can become defining to leadership identity and make authenticity highly conditional upon performing them. How can women avoid being boxed in?

“Ithink that gender norms, like what we saw in the media during the crisis permeate Western organisations and societies, but the corporate world is especially prone to the reproduction of gender stereotypes,” Liu shared. “Stereotypical assumptions often manifest in mundane and seemingly innocent practices, such as sexualised banter and informal networks and bonding, which can work to further marginalise women from leadership.” She continued, “I would stress that structural inequality should not be ignored and can ultimately be challenged through more reflexive and progressive practices from those who are often relegated to the margins of leadership.”

Liu advises women to be aware of the box, and defy representing your leadership only within it.

“I would suggest women who aspire to leadership need to remain aware of the wider gender norms that constrain their exercise of leadership and their pursuit of authenticity,” Liu told

“As Gail Kelly demonstrated, women can communicate compelling leadership personas that speak to gender norms around being attentive, responsible and people-oriented in order to assert their right to lead. At the same time, there is immense promise for women (and men) who may choose to reject and subvert gender norms through their leadership work. They can pay attention to how they frame themselves when they communicate with their employees and peers and potentially engage more proactively with the media to project more nuanced images of themselves as embodying both feminine and masculine qualities.”

“With increased representation and visibility of female leaders, including those who may not occupy formal positions of leadership but nevertheless engage in ‘leading’,” she shared, “I’m optimistic that we will see that women leaders are diverse, well-rounded and irreducible to gender stereotypes.” hopes she is right.

By Aimee Hansen