Do Women and Men Lead Differently?

1 Comment » Written on March 9th, 2015     
Filed under: Book & Commentary
Jo Ann Deasy is an ordained Covenant pastor currently serving as the director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh, PA

IMG_0041When a church considers hiring a woman associate pastor, they often do so because they believe a woman will provide balance to the pastoral team. There is the assumption that she will lead differently, reach different people, understand pastoral ministry from a uniquely feminine perspective. In 1993, sociologist Ed Lehman decided to find out if this was really true. He surveyed over 500 clergy, half male and half female, as well as the laity in their congregations, asking them about their approach to leadership and how it was perceived by their congregations. The results, published in the book Gender and Work: The Case of the Clergy (1993), have been debated ever since.

Lehman’s work found that differences in leadership between male and female clergy were often minimal. Lehman did find that female clergy were slightly more empowering than male clergy. He found that female clergy tended to lead with their congregations rather than over them. He also found, though, that male clergy also often led in ways that were culturally considered more feminine, empowering, and coming alongside.

Lehman found the clearest differences among clergy of large congregations. He found that female senior pastors with multiple staff members often led in more feminine ways while male clergy in the same positions led in more masculine ways. He suggests that these female clergy had more freedom to express their true style of leadership while those in smaller congregations were more limited to cultural expectations of male roles. Lehman’s conclusions about female pastors of large congregations has been one of the more challenged findings in his work. Zikmund, Lummis and Chang in their work Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (1998) found few differences between male and female clergy in large congregations. Both studies admit, though, the difficulty in finding a large enough sampling of female senior pastors of large congregations to produce conclusive results.

The differences Lehman did find among pastors were often unrelated to gender. Lehman found that new pastors tended to exert more power over the congregation while veteran pastors were more empowering. Lehman also found more differences between white clergy and African American clergy, both male and female, than between male and female clergy of either race. African American clergy as a whole were less “empowering” and more likely to exert power over the congregation. I put “empowering” in quotation marks because Lehman’s conclusion highlights how his definitions of “empowering” and “feminine styles of leadership” are culturally constructed realities that are primarily white and middle/upper class.

In a world where woman often fight for their right to lead based on the unique contribution they can make due to their different perspective on the world, Lehman’s study might seem a bit disheartening. Personally, though, I found it very freeing. As a woman pastor, I often found myself more like other pastors (male and female), than like other women. I fit more in a ministerial meeting than a woman’s bible study. I was grateful for a study that in many ways argued that my pastoral identity came before my gender and was more significant in shaping my pastoral leadership.

Do men and women lead differently? Maybe. Most likely. We are so shaped by the culture around us, by our race, our gender, our class, our country of origin, that it is likely that there are differences. Are men and women perceived to lead differently? Most definitely. When a woman “leads over” rather than “leading alongside,” she is sometime criticized for not being feminine enough rather than praised for being a strong leader. When men exhibit empowering, shepherding pastoral care skills, they are sometimes accused of being too feminine and failing to exert strong leadership. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not whether or not men and women pastors lead differently, but do we have different expectations of male and female clergy? And do our expectations of female clergy (or male clergy, for that matter) actually allow them to thrive in their role as leaders of congregations.

(Adapted from an article originally posted at on Monday, June 29, 2009)

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One Response to “Do Women and Men Lead Differently?”

Hi Jo Ann,

Thanks for your insights. I appreciate the question you pose at the end. And great pic of you and your son!

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