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Cis-Heteropatiarchy is a system of power and control that positions cis-straight white males as superior and normative in their expression of gender and sexuality (Harris, 2011; Smith, 2006). An assumed logic of deficiencies and static binaries undergirds the continued socio-cultural, legal and institutional marginalization of multiple gender and sexual identities that do not conform with heteronormativity, as well as the continued authority of masculine expressions over the feminine (Schilt, 2009; Woodson & Pabon, 2016). The expectations of conformity in gender and sexual expression are prevalent in the selection and reception of leaders who are traditionally expected to exercise their power as the “great man” of influence with impact over their followers (Marshall, 2016). Dominant expressions of masculinity related to authority, power, and stoicism illegitimate and limit the value and input of leaders who do not identify within prescribed binaries and identify as gay, bisexual, transexual, and intersexed (Sharman, 2019). 

In critiquing the logics of cis-heteropatriarchy, we consider;

1. Predominance of binaries and dichotomies: Western epistemology would have us classify, sort and rank all living things into immutable categories. It defines masculinity and femininity in narrow and limiting ways, perpetuating false binaries between male and female, dominant and subordinate. This system of classification perpetuates a myth of separateness and of static identities that deny the fluid, messy, complexity of our humanity and our connections to self and others. Fluidity and complexity invite inclusion and make space for plurality in our ways of being.   

2. Assumptions of normalcy: Normalcy assumes a particular way of thinking, being and doing, of believing and loving. These assumptions privilege straight, male, and masculine interests, narratives, marginalizing women, femininity, and all gender non-conforming bodies that challenge the gender binary. Disrupting and confronting the comfort that is afforded to privileged identities like that of cis-heterosexual males requires problematizing these norms, embracing tensions and ambiguities, and challenging oppressive gender and sexual ideas and embodiments.

3. Toxic masculinity: Cis-heteropatriarchy forecloses opportunities for vulnerability, emotion or apologies. Toxic masculinity leads to phenomena such as the ‘boys’ club’ or the ‘old boys’ club’, comprised of other men with similar identities that think and act similarly. Those in the club will be rewarded for their work, even if their work is mediocre or trivial in nature, while those who are divergent in thoughts and/or marginalized in identity will be overlooked, unacknowledged or unrewarded for their work.

Leaders who operate in cis-heteropatriarchy often feel most comfortable when operating in the “status quo”. They tend to take up space in conversations, especially when working with individuals who are gendered women.  In these settings, the power to cultivate authentic connections and collaboration in leadership is overshadowed (Marshall, 2016). There is often little space for newness or nuance, and little space for embodied notions of leadership.

In disrupting cis-heteropatriarchy in leadership, we consider the following questions:

  • How does cis-heteropatriarchy influence the conceptualization of leadership and the selection and promotion of leaders?
  • How might feminist and queer perspectives offer opportunities for transformative leadership? 
  • How might the intimate, affect, play, imagination, and desire influence how we understand leadership and how we lead?
  • What becomes possible when we question what has been normalized in leadership?


Harris, A. (2011). Heteropatriarchy kills: challenging gender violence in a prison nation. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, 37, 13–66.

Marshall, C., Johnson, M., & Edwards, T. (2016). A Feminist Critical Policy Analysis of Patriarchy in Leadership. In Critical Approaches to Education Policy Analysis (pp. 131–150). Springer International Publishing.

Schilt, K., & Westbrook, L. (2009). Doing gender, doing heteronormativity: “Gender normals,” transgender people, and the social maintenance of heterosexuality. Gender & Society23(4), 440–464.

Smith, A. (2006). Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy: In A. Smith (Ed.), The color of violence: The incite! anthology. Cambridge, MA: South End

Woodson, A., & Pabon, A. (2016). “I’m None of the Above”: Exploring Themes of Heteropatriarchy in the Life Histories of Black Male Educators. Equity & Excellence in Education, 49(1), 57–71