Women as leaders in public discourse : communication, gender and leadership

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School of Business | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2012-01-20
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Kansainvälinen yritysviestintä
International Business Communication
Degree programme
167 s.
Aalto University publication series. DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 2/2012
As an investigation on communication, gender and leadership, the research project examines how women leaders operating in the political and business domains are characterized in public discourse. The project comprises five empirical case studies, which have been carried out as independent investigations. The focus is on the characterization of two high-status women leaders, namely Hillary Clinton and Nicola Horlick, and the manner in which they are portrayed in news reports and the way they portray themselves in autobiographies. Drawing on the findings of the five case studies, the research project addresses the following question: How are characterizations of women leaders socially constructed in public discourse? To answer the question, the study analyses the data from a linguistic perspective on discourse where language forms are taken as the starting point for discourse analysis, and the linguistic structuring of words, phrases and sentences are examined in relation to their context, i.e. their linguistic function, textual content and/or situational and socio-cultural setting. The analysis draws attention to linguistic communication processes and the idea that meanings of social phenomena are generated at all levels of language use. The findings relate to five forms of linguistic structuring, i.e. (i) varying premodifications of the Subject Phrase, (ii) linguistic forms of reference, (iii) linguistic forms of self-reference, (iv) implicit collocations and (v) narrative themes of self-presentation that are used to portray women leaders by themselves or by others. Additionally, the findings draw on the notion (un)doing gender and suggest that gender can also take on other than stereotypical meanings in public discourse. In contrast to previous research conducted in the fields of organizational communication and gender studies, the investigation shows that the media do not only reinforce existing gender stereotypes but that the media also challenge stereotypical representations of femininity. In the data, Clinton and Horlick are not consistently described in accordance with existing gender stereotypes; rather, media characterizations of both women leaders depend on the situational context and especially on whether or not gender stereotypes make the overall news story more or less newsworthy. The findings also show that women leaders use gender as a communicative instrument for image management. In their autobiographies, Clinton and Horlick exploit existing gender stereotypes in order to create their own leadership images, suggesting that the meaning of gender can be changed and that new perceptions can be composed through old perceptions of women leaders. Based on the findings, the main argument of the doctoral dissertation is that the meaning of gender (in relation to leadership) is currently transforming and that there are multiple realities (or understandings) of gender competing for legitimacy in our (global) society.
Supervising professor
Charles, Mirjaliisa, Prof.
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