Mar 16, 2012

Would it have made a lot of difference?

By Inger Lassen, Professor, Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University (Denmark)

Intriguing as this question may seem, it might not have made a whole lot of difference whether Steve Jobs had been a woman. On the other hand it could. The question is perhaps not so much whether Steve Jobs would have been man or woman, but rather how Steve Jobs is discursively constructed as man or woman with stereotypically masculine or feminine features. Much gender research seems to be gradually moving away from essentialist views and the binary distinction between what professors Matts Alvesson and Yvonne Billing have referred to as bio-men and bio-women[1], concepts that refer to the biological sex of men and women. However, we still tend to categorize each other, making stereotypical statements about what we see as typical masculine or feminine behaviour.

This is perhaps particularly predominant in management approaches, where for instance Judy Rosener, professor at The Paul Merage School of Business, refers to masculine and feminine leadership styles as transactional and transformational[2]. In this view men’s role in leadership is seen as authoritative and women’s as empathetic. A transactional leadership style is task-oriented and uses the principle of rewards or punishments, relying to a great extent on positional authority. A transformational leadership style, on the other hand, encourages commitment to groups and organizational goals, participation in decisions making processes and managing through personal qualities, such as showing empathy and being able to listen to staff.

«Much gender research of today seems to share the idea that masculine and feminine behaviour may be characteristic of men as well as of women»

However, much gender research of today seems to share the idea that masculine and feminine behaviour may be characteristic of men as well as of women, gender primarily being constructed in social and cultural processes. Focusing on gender in organizations, Alvesson and Billing have warned us against gender over-sensitivity, claiming that gender might not always be a relevant parameter because individuals may perform a number of different identities which are not necessarily gender-specific. For instance, in a meeting where executives discuss whether to acquire another company, the parties involved in the discussion would rely more on various aspects of professional identity than on gender identity, which in the situation would most likely be irrelevant.

But where does this lead us when addressing the Open Thoughts 2012 question? According to journalist Sarah McInerney[3], Steve Jobs’ management style «wasn’t the stuff of university textbooks – he wasn’t known for his consultative or consensus building approach. He was a “high-maintenance co-worker” who demanded excellence from his staff and was known for his blunt delivery of criticism». If the dual management styles mentioned above are anything to go by, this would categorize Steve Jobs as a transactional leader.

«There’s an impression that Jobs possessed both authoritative —or masculine— and empathetic —or feminine— features»

In many ways, this impression is shared by some experts, like Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano,[4] who refers to Jobs’ leadership style as «vertical, top-down and often harsh». However, Verganti recognizes at the same time that Jobs «managed by meaning» in the sense that to Apple’s co-founder people were human. In his view, Jobs thus offered meaning to customers as well as to employees by offering them a sense of mission, and thereby a sense of identity and loyalty with Apple. This might indicate that in addition to transactional features, Jobs also possessed what Rosener referred to as transformational features.

In his biography on Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson[5] thus characterizes him as being «very emotional and sentimental» and able to «understand other people’s emotions». According to Isaacson, «Steve Jobs understood what caused people’s emotions and was able to connect emotionally with people». This combined with the sense of ‘meaning-making’ Jobs was able to infuse in people might be more closely related with a transformational management style.

So what if Steve Jobs would have been a woman? Well, there might not necessarily have been a whole lot of difference, don’t you think?

1. Alvesson, M. and Billing. Y.D. (2002). «Beyond body-counting: A discussion of the social construction of gender at work». In Gender, Identity and the Culture of Organizations. Aaltio and Mills (eds.), 72-91. London and New York: Routledge.
2. Rosener, J.B. (1990). «Ways women lead», Harvard Business Review, November-December.
3. McInerney, S. (2011). «Steve Jobs. An unconventional leader». The Sydney Morning Herald, October.
4. Verganti, R. (2011). «Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning», Harvard Business Review, October.
5. Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs (Biography). USA: Simon and Schuster.

Further reading:
Majstorovic, D. and Lassen, I. (2011). Living with Patriarchy. Amsterdam and Philadelphia. Benjamins.

1 comment :

  1. So, isn't gender behaviour constructed by our genes? It's just a matter of our social and cultural environment? I wonder whether psychologists and other experts would agree with that. Anyone around?