Gender Roles in Organization and Leadership

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The Sepik region of Papua, New Guinea, the community of Stinking Creek, Kentucky, and the general society in which we live are all culturally diverse societies, but they all share some variation of the male as traditional leader. In New Guinea, license for that position of leadership arises from their believe in the male being the first to emerge from the primordial aqueous environment. Stinking Creek is located in an isolated region of the southern Appalachians and operates under traditional values that are prevented from changing at all because of local economic conditions, but both the Sepik populations and that of Stinking Creek are focused more on survival than on equitable division of labor and leadership opportunities. Survival is not the issue in our general society that it is in theirs, and so we are afforded more opportunity to examine why leadership tends to settle on the shoulders of the male.

That gender roles vary among societies is well established. All societies maintain variations of generalities that can apply to many, if not most, other societies, one of which is that males are traditional leaders. Though there are some cultures where this is not the standard organization, those cultures are rare. Here, the role of gender as it affects leadership, and to a lesser extent, social organization is examined in and compared among three societies: the Sepik region of Papua, New Guinea; the community of Stinking Creek, Kentucky; and the general society in which we live.

Papua, New Guinea
In the Sepik region of Papua, New Guinea, there are various accounts of specific events of cultural history in which “historians” agree on the basic concepts of the stories, but in which details are often contested for the sake of preserving the roles ancestors played in those happenings. One story that is not contested, however, is of the creation of the society: “the original state of the world was aquatic (Swadling 1989). At an undeterminable moment, the water was stirred by wind, and land surfaced. There was a totemic pit (tsagi wangu) that is often envisioned as the center of the world; it is said to be located in the Sepik Plains, near the Sawos-speaking village of Gaikarobi. Male ancestors emerged from the pit, separated the sky from the earth with forked branches, and created the perceptible world through toponymy or naming” (Silverman, 1997; p. 101).
Technicalities of lineage are more complex than simple matrilineal or patrilineal heritage, and are related to the intricacies of the human life cycle. “In local ideology, conception results from sexual intercourse and the mixture of semen and menstrual blood. Semen becomes bones that form a stable core for the growth of delicate organs and flesh, which originate from menstrual blood. At birth, the child begins a lifetime of exchanges with matrikin, especially mother's brothers (Bateson 1936). Like flesh, maternal identity is fragile and thus requires constant attention. But paternal identity, like bones, is fixed and permanent. It needs little or no care. Hence fathers and sons rarely interact, but the avunculate and his nephew have a close and active relationship” (Silverman, 1997; p. 103).
The male feels no threat from the attention received by the female side of either the family or society, because where the true strength lies is always known: though flesh is matrilineal, it is temporary and fleeting. “At death, maternal flesh decays, leaving only paternal bones” (Silverman, 1997; p. 103). The female may receive great attention, but it is understood that the male provides the permanence of the society and therefore is responsible for all leadership. Only in recent years has this concept come into question, and only among the males.
Historically, the people of the Sepik region have exhibited “two components of the personality: a stubborn, aggressive autonomy, on the one hand; and a sensitivity to the concerns of others, on the other. Ethnographers working in many areas of Melanesia have reported that ideas about these two personality traits shape attitudes toward gender and leadership” (Brison and Robbins, 1995; p. 155).
Before the advent of colonialism and the influence of contact with Christian copper miners working nearby, the people of the area were quite contented with their system of organization based on traditional gender roles. It was the man’s place to lead always, but there were intricacies of hierarchy that maintained order and respect for authority. Though showing cowardice has never been acceptable behavior under any ideology, the Sepik region’s people have come to question the validity of their concept of masculinity. “People living in villages in this region are easily influenced by social events which lead them to revise their concept of masculinity. As a result, these communities lack leaders who consider the respect for authority as a sign of internal strength and not a symbol of cowardice” (Brison and Robbins, 1995; p. 155). While the people of this area have not had difficulty in maintaining their acceptance of only masculine leadership, the men themselves have begun to question which among them should be subservient to another.

Stinking Creek, Kentucky
Stinking Creek is a community in Knox County, Kentucky, a remote area of the Southern Appalachians that formerly was the site of underground coal mines. When the coal companies changed much of their mining practice to surface strip mining, many of the local jobs were lost along with the landscape. When mining ceased completely, there literally were no jobs at all in the local community aside from those that could be provided by the one school and one general store. There was limited agricultural activity, but crops raised were primarily for the benefit of farm animals rather than people. Many of the best small family farms had been taken over by industrial giants requiring no local labor input, leaving only strip mining-ravaged poor and rocky soil for the people’s use. By 1970, nearly every family of Stinking Creek was receiving some form of welfare assistance after resisting acceptance for years.
One young couple still holding out to make their way on their own was Earl and Marie Broughton. “Broughtons took the timber, farmed the narrow bottoms, raised huge generations. Most of them are getting on into their old age, and many of the younger Broughtons are gone to punch time clocks in northern cities” (Fetterman, 1970; p. 147). Earl Broughton, 32, had been married for 12 years to Marie, and they had seven children. “Marie is a dark-haired woman who at thirty has the quiet competence of the mountain wife” (Fetterman, 1970; p. 148), meaning that she basically speaks when she is invited to and fulfills the role of “helpmate” to her husband.
Earl is unusual in that he works 240 miles away in Cincinnati, coming home for the weekends. He is home between Saturday morning and Sunday evening each week, but has the option of remaining at home if he will only accept welfare. He “could sit at home, never work, and be about as well off as he is with his killing schedule. He never seriously considers this alternative... ‘Sometimes I wonder how the men do it and live with themselves...stay on the welfare...Now, I ain’t totally against the welfare, understand. There’d be lots of them starve if we didn’t have it’....His wife agreed. ‘I think they should get some jobs so the men can stay home’” (Fetterman, 1970; p. 149).
Truman and Geraldine Messer are of one of the community’s leading families—one branch of it owns the sole local store. Truman also refuses welfare but travels only twenty miles to work in a hospital supply room. They live in a two-room house on the creek where Truman grew up, where he used to fish when the creek still held fish to offer before strip mining polluted it beyond life support. He planned well for his marriage, buying furniture and wiring the house for electricity beforehand. Soon, he hopes to add sheetrock to the interior.
Geraldine is unusual in the community in that she manages the family finances. Truman is quick to point out that she has even started a savings account, though his income from his job is less than that of the area’s welfare recipients. Geraldine favors looking elsewhere [“Of course, there is jobs in Detroit and Chicago” (Fetterton, 1970; p. 153)], but Truman insists that after working in Detroit while on vacation once, they will stay right where they are in Stinking Creek. “It was just too crowded. I like it here. The freedom and the hills. Plenty of good fresh air. I think it’s a good place to raise a family” (Fetterton, 1970; p. 152). Geraldine adds that Truman has planned on her having two children.
The Broughtons and the Messers have married well. Not all marriages in Stinking Creek work out, as is the case anywhere else in the country. Henry and Carrie Brown have been married for several years, but Carrie says, “I suppose I’m about forty-seven, and I just been married twice” (Fetterton, 1970; p. 76). Their oldest daughter, however, is back home with the family after three years of marriage. Carrie “said with a quiet finality: ‘Wanda Lee was asking for trouble. She married outside the family’” (Fetterton, 1970; p. 76).
Unlike the Sepik people of Papua, New Guinea, the heritage in Stinking Creek is traced only patrilineally. Otherwise, the two societies compare closely in gender-based leadership roles and attitudes. Though women may be consulted in a decision in Stinking Creek, the ultimate authority is that of the man. Marriage is the setting in which that pattern can be seen, but it also applies to local government and social organization. In each, it is not a disdain of women or believe that they are less than capable, but merely what they see as natural order. Truman Messer illustrates the regard he holds for his wife when he says, “I don’t want her to never have to work” (Fetterton, 1970; p. 153).

“Our” Society
The role of gender and its applicability to any situation at all has long been an issue of discussion and even protected by anti-discrimination laws. Moss and Kent (1996) investigated traits of emergent leaders in “initially leaderless group situations in organizations such as informal meetings, committees, task forces, problem-solving groups, and project teams” (p. 79), saying that “Situations such as these provide individuals with the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership capabilities (Schneier & Bartol, 1980). When individuals are perceived as leaders in one group situation, they may be more likely to be labeled as leaders in other group situations...Thus, the process of emergent leadership in groups may have important implications for organizations in terms of the development of future leaders” (Moss and Kent, 1996; p. 79).
This entire concept is one that would be totally foreign to either the Papua, New Guinea, group or that of Stinking Creek, as would be the research of Cahill and Adams (1997) into the influences of early childhood teachers on the development of gender roles in children. For either of these two societies, that someone would want to research the issue would likely be far less strange than would be that young children would spend their days with anyone other than their families. Perhaps a point that would make sense to both of the other two societies is that Moss and Kent (1996) found that leaderless organizations generally will gravitate to a man or a woman with strong masculine traits as their leader, rather than rallying around a woman of traditional traits.

To the Sepik people, the concept of a woman doing man’s work is foreign outside the emerging metropolitan areas. Both they and the people of Stinking Creek have more need to focus on efficient survival, and the people of such cultures generally do tend to have narrowly defined acceptable gender roles, often based on physical abilities. Nursing babies is a way of life rather than a matter of choice; men obviously cannot provide adequate care for children in those societies. Rather than being a discounting of the abilities of either sex, it is more a case of the necessity of all working for a common goal in order to survive and prosper. In our society, most of us are beyond issues of survival and so have the luxury of turning our attention elsewhere.


Brison, Karen and Joel Robbins (1995, Summer). Changing constructions of masculinity in a Sepik Society. (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea). Ethnology, vol. 34, p. 155.

Cahill, Betsy and Eve Adams (1997, April). An exploratory study of early childhood teachers' attitudes toward gender roles. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, vol. 36, p. 517.

Errington, Frederick and Deborah Gewertz (1997, June). The Wewak Rotary Club: the middle class in Melanesia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 3, p. 333.

Fetterman, John (1970). Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community in Appalachia. New York, NY : E. P. Dutton.

Gewertz, Deborah and Frederick Errington (1997, July). Why we return to Papua New Guinea. Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 70, p. 127.

Lye, Diane N. and Ingrid Waldron (1997, Summer). Attitudes toward cohabitation, family, and gender roles: relationships to values and political ideology. Sociological Perspectives, vol. 40, p. 199.

Moss, Sherry E. and Russell L. Kent (1996, July). Gender and gender-role categorization of emergent leaders: a critical review and comprehensive analysis. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, vol. 35, p. 79.

Silverman, Eric Kline (1997, Spring). Politics, gender, and time in Melanesia and aboriginal Australia. (Iatmul, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea). Ethnology, vol. 36, p. 101.

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