Research Article: Masculinity, femininity, and leadership: Taking a closer look at the alpha female

Date Published: April 12, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Monika K. Sumra, Valerio Capraro.


An extensive review and textual analysis of the academic and popular literature of the human alpha female was conducted to examine the social construction and expression of the alpha female identity in a small non-random sample of North American women (N = 398). This review revealed 2 predominant alpha female representations in the literature–one more masculine versus one more feminine–and 21 alpha female variables. In this sample of women, the “alpha female” was found to be a recognized socially constructed female identity. Univariate analysis revealed positive and highly significant differences in self-reported mean scores between alpha (N = 94) and non-alpha (N = 304) females for 10 variables including, masculine traits, leadership, strength, low introversion, self-esteem, life satisfaction, sexual experience, initiates sex, enjoys sex and playing a dominant role in sexual encounters, with alpha females scoring higher than non-alphas. The measure of masculine traits was identified as the only predictor of alpha female status as per the multiple regression model. Interestingly, both alpha and non-alpha women scored the same for the measure of feminine traits. Further, both groups scored higher for feminine traits than masculine traits. The results also revealed that neither social dominance nor sexual dominance were predictors of alpha female status which challenge academic and popularized representations of this identity. The results suggest that although the alpha female is often regarded as an exceptional and, at times, an exoticized form of femininity, like other femininities, her identity is marked by contradictions and tensions

Partial Text

Individuals considered leaders in society who occupy the highest positions such as heads of corporations, senior management and those that hold political office are often referred to as “alpha” [1–16]. “Alphas” exercise influence over others, play a lead role in goal-setting, goal achievement, the development of a group or organization, and are regarded as leaders by other members of a group [17]. The term “alpha”, or more specifically “alpha male”, originates from the field of animal behavior and is used as a descriptor for the highest-ranking individual of a social group [18–31]. Popularized narratives and discourse within this context rely on analogies between human and primate behavior [1–4], [16], [32–36].

The present research, including the method of obtaining informed consent, was approved by the University of Toronto’s Research Ethics Board (Protocol #27117). Informed consent was obtained for each phase of the study from all participants. For the survey portion, informed consent was provided electronically on the webpage. The webpage was designed such that participants could not proceed to the survey unless they clicked the “yes” option at the bottom of the consent letter describing the research.

Descriptive statistics including the mean, median and standard deviation were run for all variables. For the analysis of the alpha female, self-identification was used to categorize women as alpha or non-alpha. The differences between the alpha and non-alpha groups were assessed using nonparametric Mann-Whitney U-tests. The Mann-Whitney comparisons were used to identify potential predictor variables of alpha female status. Logistic regression was conducted using ten potential predictor variables that were identified by the Mann-Whitney U comparisons, 1) BSRI-M, 2) Leadership, 3) Strength, 4) Low Introversion, 5) RSES, 6) Life Satisfaction, 7) Sexual Experience, 8) Initiates Sex, 9) Enjoys Sex, and 10) DomRole_Sex. Odds ratio analyses were conducted to examine both the alpha female as a valid form of female identity in Western society, and the likelihood of an alpha female holding a management position. Data on sexual preference were also analyzed to provide insight into the alpha female’s sexuality profile. All statistical tests were conducted using the Number Cruncher Statistical Systems (NCSS) statistical software package [144].

The present study investigated the alpha female as a form of social identity in a small non-random sample of women in North America (N = 398). The association between self-identified alpha females and measures of sexuality, and management, as an index of leadership position in the workplace were also examined. Based on the textual analysis it was expected that the alpha female would be considered a widely recognized and positive social construct of female identity that privileges masculine traits akin to the alpha male. Two hypotheses were developed to test the two competing conceptualizations of the alpha female identity in Western society, 1) The Alpha Female–Masculine (AFM) Hypothesis and 2) The Alpha Female-Feminine Hypothesis (AFF). Under the Alpha Female-Masculine Hypothesis, it was predicted that alpha females would be more socially and sexually dominant, more likely to occupy a management position in the workplace, be a leader, be stronger, have higher self-esteem, be less introverted than non-alpha females, and possess more masculine than feminine traits. Under the Alpha Female-Feminine Hypothesis (AFF) it was predicted that compared to non-alpha females, alpha females would be more collaborative and possess more feminine than masculine traits.

The present research contributes to and has direct implications for future leadership and alpha-leadership research. In the leadership literature, although the term “alpha” has become synonymous with the term “leader” [10, 11, 14, 88, 89] there is confusion as to what “alpha leadership” actually means. Those at “the top” of the business hierarchy or organizational chart are considered the leaders. “Alpha leadership” is a term often used to describe a leadership style for those holding top positions in organizations such as CEOs and senior management [152]. While some claim leadership for these individuals is social dominance [38], others contend that such leadership has little to do with it [152]. Similarly, when it comes to identifying alpha males and females there seems to be confusion. According to [88], it is easy to spot an alpha male in the workplace, but spotting an alpha female is more challenging. The authors contend that this occurs because people are more “confused” about the alpha female when it comes to her traits [88]. They argue that different alpha females may possess some but not all of the traits possessed by alpha males [88]. Irrespective of the confusion, leaders in organizations and other leaders such as politicians, exercise influence over others; play a lead role in goal-setting, goal achievement, and the development of a group or organization; and are regarded as the leader by other members of the group [17]. The present research therefore also serves as a framework within which to also evaluate the alpha male within this context. Further, a comparison of the alpha male and female will provide invaluable and quantifiable insight into the notion of alpha leadership. The results of such a study would have a significant impact on how leadership is viewed in the workplace and what traits/characteristics employers should look for when hiring for specific leadership positions.




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