Women in Leadership, a Cognitive and Psychological Approach

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mehrbanoo Hosseinirad and Mohadeseh Alizadeh, third-year medical students at the Ardabil University of Medical Science, Iran. They are affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Finding “the right man for the job” has been appropriately updated to “the right person for the job.” However, despite the improvements in gender-neutral language, leadership has been biasedly perceived as a position best suited to the male character. Why do women still lag behind men in leadership positions, while cognitive research shows that women’s leadership styles can be effective in critical emergency circumstances?

With the individual differences taken into account, some behavioral studies indicate that males and females act differently under pressure by using several strategies with various risk tolerances and at different speeds (Lighthall 2012). The critical matter, however, is that we should not limit the discussion to stereotypical gender-based contrasts.

Supporting the behavioral and cognitive differences, one clue is that women are more “Tending & Befriending” in the workplace. It is a model of the stress response and can shed the light on why women and men might differ in their approach to leading individuals and teams, particularly in times of crisis and challenge.

UCLA health psychologist Shelley Taylor proposes that women often respond to challenging and stressful situations by protecting themselves and others through nurturing behaviors (tending), expressing emotions, and socializing (befriending). While, in contrast, the classic “Fight or Flight” response is less notable in women. Indeed, in conflict circumstances, women may have a biological predisposition (mediated by pro-social peptides), Taylor points out, to become more affiliative, caring, nurturing, and emotionally expressive compared to men. This theory supports the idea that women are likely to express more participative, collaborative, and transformational demonstrations of leadership under pressure compared to their male counterparts.

In most countries, women make up about 45 to 55 percent of medical students, while this statistical parity is not being echoed in medical leadership. From sexist promotional practices to the predisposed assumptions that women are excessively “nice” to be leaders, these factors result in women not being as readily considered for leadership positions (Chaffins, Forbes, Fuqua, & Cangemi, 1995; Fletcher, Jordan, & Miller, 2000).

Because women occupy a higher percentage of lower-status positions, their leadership potential is less visible. They are also less integrated into dominant organizational coalitions, which reduces their opportunities of receiving proper mentoring and being selected for leadership positions (Bass, 1985).

Considering all of the above, what are some factors that could help bring this gender gap to its knees? We should consider both intrinsic and external factors impartially. Ruderman and Ohlott (2005) noted that “self-clarity allows women to grow by enabling them to recognize their values so they can live authentically, improve their ability to connect with others, and make choices that produce feelings of wholeness”. Cognitive and behavioral changes can help to solidify women’s leadership identities.

Moreover, creating formal mentoring programs for women, encouraging peer-mentoring, and offering support when caring for children or ill family members are among effective mitigation strategies. These policies, if undertaken by authorities and medical leaders, could lead to a healed system for both men and women seeking leadership.

About the author

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mehrbanoo Hosseinirad and Mohadeseh Alizadeh, third-year medical students at the Ardabil University of Medical Science, Iran. They are affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

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