top of page

How Do Gender Stereotypes Impact Queer Leadership?

Updated: 5 days ago

Guest writer Sayantani Chakravarty examines how rigid ideas around gender hold back LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace and impact their ability to thrive as leaders.

A black and white photo of Sayantani, an Indian lesbian with brown skin, shoulder length dark hair and glasses, against a green background. To the right of her are illustrations of venus and mars symbols with cracks in them, and a rainbow flag above them.


It amazes me how often most of us struggle to introduce ourselves when asked to tell a little about ourselves. Yet our friends and colleagues are rarely as lost for words to describe us when asked to do so. In queer spaces, I would probably be described as the brown lesbian researcher of Indian origin. And there, those five words are usually enough for people to assign me a category with a certain look and a personality in their heads. 


The fact that we make such associations in our heads is not necessarily the problem, it’s something we cannot help as humans. The problem is how often we insist people mould themselves to fit our perception of them, rather than change our perception according to their being.


Explicit biases are usually easier to deal with. If someone specifically tells me they hate me or my community, it is unlikely I will be able to change their mind. Implicit biases are harder to deal with, because implicit biases are not hate, yet they can hurt people quite the same. They require painstaking effort to be brought into awareness and a willingness to unlearn past conditioning. 


I used to think I was comfortable in my gender and sexuality until I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test in my first year of PhD, where to my dismay I discovered how much easier it was for me to imagine a male CEO to a female CEO, even as I myself wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial journey. As a queer brown immigrant woman, living off my PhD stipend, I never really truly believed I had the risk appetite or the fortitude required to build something of my own. A simple fact such as in 2023, 37 of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies were white men and not one of them was a South Asian woman or a queer woman means that no matter how bold our dreams, our imaginations are often bound by the representation we see. Since then, I offer the test to anyone willing to take it, just to get a sense of how we find it easier to make certain associations more than others based on the conditioning and representation we have had access to.


I have spent the past few years studying leadership and gender stereotypes and there are three things which make queer leadership particularly challenging.

1) At birth, we are not merely assigned a sex, but also gender roles we are expected to abide by to fulfill our responsibility as a member of a social category. (Eagly and Wood 2012; Eagly and Stefen 2000) 2) We tend to have leadership prototypes, i.e. beliefs about attributes we think a leader should possess (Xiao et. al 2020; Nye and Forsyth 1991), which narrow our vision of what an ‘effective’ leader may look like.

3) Individuals get penalised whenever they do not conform to societal expectations  (Eagly and Karau, 2002)


This results in a host of problems. If you lead as a competent woman, you are unlikely to be liked. If you lead as an empathetic man, you are unlikely to be seen as confident. If you lead as a non-binary person with a nuanced worldview, you will be perceived as confused. 



Struggles of A Queer Leader 


Legitimacy: The appearance or behaviour of LGBTQIA+ individuals may not conform to people’s beliefs about what constitutes professionalism. Trans and non-binary people are more likely to be misgendered by their colleagues and subordinates which often serves to undermine their authority and legitimacy. Thus, queer folx must often spend a substantial amount of time establishing their own legitimacy as leaders. 


Intersectionality: While navigating intersectional identities is difficult for most individuals it can be particularly challenging for queer leaders, as for queer folx their queer identity is often perceived to be in direct confrontation with their other identities. Most salient among them being one’s religious and cultural identity. Queer leaders often have a harder time convincing their peers and employees that they might have a shared identity or sense of belonging whenever the shared identity seems to be in conflict with being queer. Furthermore, the layers of marginalised identities make traversing intersectionality even more difficult.


Tokenism & Role Model Pressure: LGBTQIA+ folx are sometimes viewed as being promoted or hired only to fulfil diversity quotas. What is worse, even policies designed with affirmative action in mind to promote diverse leadership often fail as queer folx refuse to step up or participate in leadership due to the stigma attached to being seen as a ‘token’. Additionally, queer individuals who do go on to become leaders are then faced with the additional pressure of representing entire communities, with their every action being scrutinised, their every mistake more costly.


"Being the 'token' queer leader often means carrying the weight of representation on my shoulders. The pressure to be a role model while striving to be authentically myself requires a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength." - Nancy Di Dia

Queerness as one’s solo identity: Queer leaders often find themselves having to prove queerness is not the only identity they have. LGBTQIA+ leaders are often assumed to focus excessively on gender issues, potentially neglecting other important aspects of leadership. So often, one’s mere existence becomes a political statement. Queer leaders are quick to recognise and point out gender equity related problems. Unfortunately, when one points out a problem, one is often seen as the problem. At the same time there is an expectation from queer leaders to constantly take on the role of activists, advocating for LGBTQIA+ issues, which can be both a burden and a distraction from their primary leadership responsibilities.


Too often queer leaders and executives find themselves exhausted by tight rope walking the double edged sword that is their identity and their advocacy. Many of us in leadership positions choose to show up in the spaces we occupy being the representation we never saw during our careers. The responsibility to consider, represent, and advocate for the voices and rights of all marginalized communities is the baseline definition of being a leader. It's not an addendum to the job description reserved for only those with lived-in experiences with marginalization. - MK Getler

Mental Health Strain & Perceived Emotional Instability: The cumulative effect of all these challenges tends to put queer leaders under significant stress, leading to mental health issues. Constantly having to navigate non-inclusive environments can also take a significant emotional toll. The greater prevalence of mental health issues in LGBTQIA+ leaders is often perceived as lack of emotional stability.


"The mental health strain of navigating corporate environments as a queer leader is immense, often compounded by the unjust perception of emotional instability that comes with being open about my struggles. My vulnerability, however, is a source of strength, teaching others that true leadership is rooted in empathy and resilience." - Nancy Di Dia

Mental, social and cultural dysphoria: Queer individuals are often intimately familiar with dysphoria in a way cis heterosexual individuals might find hard to access. Nonetheless, most individuals have at certain points in their life experienced mental, social or cultural dysphoria if not physical dysphoria. Queer leaders can often invoke dysphoria among their peers and subordinates eliciting unexpected reactions or resistance from people. The discomfort stirred in one’s own being due to the apparent encounter with dysphoria is often seen as the queer leader’s agenda.


What can we do? 

Creation of inclusive environments: Inclusive dress codes, gender-neutral restrooms, and non-binary options on forms and official documents can go a long way in making individuals feel they belong. Biases manifest in subtle ways, such as exclusion from social events which could eventually translate to being overlooked for a promotion.

Provide access to queer vocabulary and emotions: So often the inadvertent hurt inflicted on queer leaders is due to a lack of access to the right vocabulary and an understanding of their journey. Hence, the more stories we hear and the more access people have to the queer lived experience, the easier it becomes to empathise.

Build support systems, mental health provision and Queer mentorship opportunities: Given the lack of representation at the top and lack of access to welcoming environments, organisations and communal spaces which create a sense of belonging for queer individuals can prove to be crucial in their career advancement.

Invite open dialogue on mental, social and cultural dysphoria: Whenever individuals encounter mental, social or cultural dysphoria, it is important to invite open dialogue and allow for self exploration. When we embrace ourselves in the entirety of our being, we often inspire others to do the same. Queer leaders are often uniquely positioned in this regard to offer help and value to an organization due to their experience.

Fair Evaluation Mechanisms - Organizations need to ensure that leadership evaluations are based on performance and skills rather than one’s gender, race or sexual identity.



References

Eagly, A. H., Wood, W., Van Lange, P., Kruglanski, A. W., & Higgins, E. T. (2012). Handbook of theories of social psychology. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, 2, 458-476.




A photo of Sayantani, a brown Queer woman. She has shoulder length dark hair and wears glasses and a blue patterned top.

Sayantani Chakravarty (she/her)

A behavioral economist by training, Sayantani is co-founding a healthcare platform in India. As a brown queer woman with a PhD in management she uses her academic background and lived experience to consult on a range of topics from behavioural biases in the workplace to gender pay gap and other inequities in outcomes arising due to a person's gender, sexuality or race and queer leadership. In her spare time, she enjoys spoken word poetry and photography.



 

While you're here...


Did you know we consult with Businesses, ERGs and Change-Leaders providing bespoke corporate solutions? Through consultancy we design shared learning experiences, produce DEI insights and craft bespoke content that support individuals with strengthening their roles as change-agents within their communities and organisations. Find out more here.


We also organise FREE community events throughout the year! We offer a variety of ways to get involved - both online and in person. This is a great way to network and learn more about others' experiences, through in-depth discussion on an array of topics. You can find out what events we have coming up here. New ones are added all the time, so make sure you sign up to our newsletter so you can stay up to date!

Comments


bottom of page