Sex Roles

, Volume 79, Issue 11–12, pp 633–650 | Cite as

Dancing on the Razor’s Edge: How Top-Level Women Leaders Manage the Paradoxical Tensions between Agency and Communion

  • Wei ZhengEmail author
  • Olca Surgevil
  • Ronit Kark
Original Article


Research documents a heightened need for women leaders to be perceived as both agentic and communal and to deal with the incongruity between communal gender-role expectations and agentic leader-role expectations. However, paradoxical tensions exist between agency and communion because they are associated with distinct, and at times conflictual, cognition, behavior, and motivation. How women leaders manage these tensions remains under-explored. To address this gap in the literature, we conducted an inductive study based on interviews with 64 U.S. women executives from various industries. Drawing from a paradox lens, we first identified four pairs of apparently contradictory agentic and communal tendencies that are interwoven in women leaders’ narratives: demanding and caring, authoritative and participative, self-advocating and other-serving, and distant and approachable. We also identified five mechanisms through which women leaders bring together agency and communion: situational accentuating, sequencing, overlapping, complementing, and reframing. Our findings highlight the underlying mechanisms and constructive routes through which women leaders juxtapose agency and communion to cope with role incongruity. They also offer guidance to women leaders and leadership-development practitioners in expanding mental models and behavioral repertoires to deal with the challenges stemming from tensions between agency and communion.


Agency Communion Leadership Gender roles Paradox Double-bind 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

We obtained IRB approval for our project, protocol number # H2014 - T096, from the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. We faithfully followed the IRB protocol in data collection, analyses, and protection. Informed consent was obtained before each interview.

Conflict of Interest

There is no potential conflict of interest as related to our research project.

Supplementary material

11199_2018_908_MOESM1_ESM.docx (42 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 41 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Management and Marketing, College of Business and EconomicsUniversity of Wisconsin – River FallsRiver FallsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Business Administration, Division of Management and Organization, Faculty of Economics and Administrative SciencesDokuz Eylul UniversityİzmirTurkey
  3. 3.Department of Psychology and the Graduate Gender Studies ProgramBar-Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael

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