Who Is the Leader? – Leadership and Gender, a Linguistic Approach – by Isabella Mey


Have you ever had to work in together with other people on a group project? Have you ever wondered how a leader gets determined in a group-work setting? And have you ever wondered if the participants gender is relevant to leadership establishment?  If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you would not be the first to ponder them!

Baxter published a paper in 2015 titled Who Wants to Be the Leader? The Linguistic Construction of Emerging Leadership in Differently Gendered Teams. The aim of the paper was to determine how a leader uses language in order to constitute themselves as the leader of a group and whether this varies according to gender. A further aim was to examine what constitutes leadership linguistic practices are if they are found in a team and if these practices are gendered.

The study

The research study was made up of 18 part-time MBA students who did not know each other prior to participating, and of whom most were working full-time at a middle management level. The students were a mix of white British and third-generation British Asian backgrounds. The students were divided into three groups of six: an all-male team, an all-female team, and a mixed-gender team. The aim of the groups was to build a paper tower within 45 minutes (30 minutes of planning time and 15 minutes of building time) according to pre-determined criteria, like the tower’s height, it’s ability to support weight, and how it looked. Baxter brought in a senior professor from the university to act as judge for the aesthetic part of the competition.

As the teams worked in sequence, Baxter could observe each of the groups and would transcribe their linguistic interactions using conversation analysis, or CA, transcription conventions. It is important to note that Baxter was working on this study as part of a greater televised-sequence, and so video recording was present, however the students seem to have forgotten about them once they started working on the actual task.

The experiment

And so, how did the different teams actually do? Let’s start off with the all-male team. During the opening sequences, the all-male group seemed to have very quickly established a hierarchy, with one of the men taking a leadership position by offering up his opinions and having a sort of ‘hype-man’ in the form of another participant who backed him up on his ideas. He had the most turns (i.e. he spoke the most) and controlled the discussion. However, by the midpoint of the exercise, a challenger arose to the first leader. The two ended up having curt and confrontational interactions, as the challenger developed into the primary leader of the group and his ideas were taken as the main ones. The other men mostly agreed to what was being said.

The all-female team also had two women ‘fighting’ for dominance, however the rest of the women were acting as on-lookers and did not offer up their own opinions. Baxter states there “was very little in the way of orderly turn taking and instead considerable use of overlapping, co-constructed, and simultaneous conversation” (2015: 442). In short, the discussion was a bit of a mess.

And finally, the mixed-gender team: In contrast to the other two teams, one male participant established himself as a figurehead, yet is deemed to have worked less directive than the leaders in the other groups and more “solicitous of other people’s views” (2015: 439). They ended up dividing the work into two groups, with some working on the aesthetics and others on the technical aspect, all the while consulting each other. Through the use of questions, pauses and rewordings, the other participants are very much in the loop.

In the end, the mixed-gender team was deemed the winner by the judge. The all-female team came in second, with the men’s tower having completely collapsed. The team seemed to have had a far more fluid hierarchy than the all-male and all-female team and seem to have divided the work by playing to the participant’s “complementary strengths” (2015: 446), as the women worked on the organization and aesthetics while the men worked on the technical side of things. Baxter is very quick to point out though that:

One of the reasons for the mixed team’s success might have been that, as a team, they implicitly accepted the gendered principle of complementary strengths rather than feeling compelled to prove themselves to be effective in all possible roles and tasks as the women-only and men-only teams had to do. But the women in the mixed team also managed to resist gender-stereotyped positioning as they were able to be authoritative in their ways of managing their colleagues and processes during the task (2015: 446-447). Essentially, the women in the mixed-gender team made ironic references to women often being better with the ‘aesthetic’ side of things, however they did firmly establish themselves in leadership roles and took charge in offering up commands to the other group members.

The conclusion

The conclusion drawn from this paper was that women resist gendered discourse, as the women in the all-female team and mixed group “demonstrated that they could be authoritative and managing with peers when required” (2015: 447) as well as they were prepared to compete. It seems that the mixed-gender group worked together in the form of complementary strengths and the participants were working outside conventional gender boundaries. The paper also sheds some insights into how same-gender linguistic interactions, particularly male-male and female-female, can form a dynamic that affects how women are seen if they attempt to get into leadership positions in male-dominated spaces, and are sometimes even hemmed by other women.

All in all, Baxter’s paper brings up interesting results, that may even seem somewhat surprising, considering certain stereotypes one might have internalized. For example, the women’s team being rather more cutthroat than one might have imagined. However, the research paper can also act as an encouragement to think outside of its scope. One could also wonder if the results of the paper had been different if the ratio of male-to-female was set up differently, or how students outside of an MBA in different age groups would have performed in the exercise. Further, as the paper works very much within the gender binary of male-female, one could wonder how the establishment of leadership and the linguistics associated with it could function in groups outside that binary.  

by Isabella Mey

Baxter, J. (2015). Who Wants to Be the Leader? The Linguistic Construction of Emerging Leadership in Differently Gendered Teams. International Journal of Business Communication 54 (4), 427-451.