Research Findings

Authority and Caring: A Zero-Sum Game for Women Leaders?

May 14, 2019

The last few years have brought renewed attention to the unique challenges facing women leaders. Feminist celebrities like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and  Ava DuVernay decry sexist double standards that hold women back professionally, and intense public commentary has focused on the possibility of a likability penalty for women in politics. The conversation touches on an either/or bind described by sociologists of gender: either women can “do gender” by displaying warmth and caring, or they can “do professionalism” by showing strong leadership and authority. But they can’t do both.

But is this tension reflected in the work experiences of all women leaders? In a recent study, we found that overlapping cultural stereotypes of what it means to be “white” and a “woman” give rise to a particular expectation for “feminine behavior” that may not exist for women of color whose race and gender elicit more masculinized stereotypes.


In our sample, white women felt an acute pull between being supportive and establishing themselves as an authority figure. They often responded to this tension by eliciting staff opinions before establishing policies, seeking to make it “very clear that every voice matters.” After the first year, however, white women reported that this approach was ineffective: it led to inefficient meetings, unproductive venting from staff, and emotional burnout.

The majority of white women responded by becoming more authoritative and establishing top-down policies.  However, white women who shifted their leadership styles faced pushback from staff, leading to intense self-doubt about their capacity to lead.

One white principal, Emily, was accused of being too task-oriented; she found out the teachers at her school thought of her as a “monster.” Rather than questioning or distancing themselves from such feedback, white women principals accepted it, saying they needed to work on “relationship building.”


Women of color started their tenure as school leaders differently.  They said they entered their position with a top-down approach. Further, they did not feel compelled to explain all of their decisions—instead, they felt that teachers should “trust [their] leader is making decisions in the best interest of the school.”

Importantly, women of color did not view expressions of authority and power as oppositional to caring. Instead, they saw it as an extension of caring. Nancy, for example, felt that being tough and direct with teachers was a way of investing in their growth. As she explained, “I’m not going to sandwich feedback that has the potential to propel you [teachers] to the next level.” Other women of color said that, as leaders, they needed to separate out care for staff with professional obligations to “do what’s best” for the children. Compared to white women, women of color reported less pushback about their leadership styles. They were also more consistent in their self-reported leadership over time.

Ultimately, we argue for a model of emotion work among women that does not center white women’s experiences as the norm. True to recent theorizing about intersectionality, we find that intersections of race and gender create different “binds” and “freedoms” for white women and women of color in leadership positions. We hope that research on women’s leadership will continue to explore how race and gender come together to shape women’s emotion work and the price they pay for exercising power and authority at work.  

Read more

Simone Ispa-Landa and Sara Thomas, “Race, Gender, and Emotion Work among School Principals,Gender and Society, 2019.

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