The term ‘alpha female’ is thrown around casually, but what does the science have to say? What is an alpha female? Here is the real definition of an alpha female, based on the latest research.
Alpha Female: A woman who has embraced her leadership ambitions. She is talented, highly motivated, and self-confident.
Female alphas embrace their confidence and this helps them lead others. An alpha female tends to:
- Believe her ability to achieve is limitless
- Self-identify as a alpha female
- Have a confidence that is contagious, which leads others to respect her as an equal
- Showcase leadership characteristics
- Be recognized by others as being impactful
- Have extremely high ambitions
The term ‘alpha’ actually comes from research on animal behavior. Traditionally, it is used to designate the male animal that is the leader of a pack. These days, the term alpha has morphed.
First, let’s find out if you are a alpha female. Take our female alpha quiz to find out:
Next, let’s dive into alpha female strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
Alpha Female Trait #1: Fearless Leadership
In one study, “Defining the Alpha Female: A Female Leadership Measure” researchers developed a 14-item questionnaire to measure the alpha female personality. They looked at qualities such as self-esteem, emotional intelligence, leadership, gender ideals and extroversion. They found that alpha females embrace their leadership role and tendencies. No reluctant leaders here! Why does reluctance matter? A woman can be in a leadership role and not embrace it. This doesn’t make her any more or less of a leader, but it does mark her as a non-alpha female. Look at the differences in these self-identifying statements.
A reluctant female leader might say…
- I’m not sure if I belong in this leadership role.
- I’m not a natural born leader.
- I don’t know enough / earn enough / do enough to lead.
A fearless alpha female might say…
- I know I can inspire others.
- I love being a leader.
- I know I can make a great impact in this world.
Many of the alpha females in the study described a level of comfort and relative advantage in the role of Alpha Female. In other words, they believe their alpha-ness works for them — and they make it so.
Alpha Female Trait #2: High Emotional Intelligence
The researchers also found that alpha females have extremely high emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (aka EQ or EI) is our ability to:
- Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions
- Recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others
- Be aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively)
Because alpha females have such high emotional intelligence, they often serve as social lubricators and business mediators.
Alpha females often are able to bring social ease to a group. They tell jokes. They start conversations. They introduce people. They smooth over business disagreements and take charge.
Alpha Female Trait #3: Obsessive Learners
In a study called “Leadership Influences of the Veteran Alpha Female” the researchers found that a common theme among veteran alpha female leaders was the importance of continuous learning. One-hundred percent of the female leaders involved in the study expressed appreciation for their ability to learn to face challenges, learn from experience, or learn from others. 100%! Alpha females prioritize their learning. They:
- Read constantly — books about what they do AND books in subjects completely new to them.
- Dive deep into their expertise. They like to be experts.
- Learn about new fields, research and topics.
- Take professional development courses to further their development.
- Ask questions.
- Learn from their experiences.
Another aspect of obsessive learning is that alpha females also embrace learning from their challenges.
The ability to learn from our obstacles is a skill.
Many of the alpha females found that their challenges were actually instrumental toward shaping their experience and talents.
Alpha Female Trait #4: Strong
I was surprised when I discovered this quality listed in the research. Of course I knew alpha females had to be strong, but I didn’t equate that necessarily with female toughness. One of the questionnaires asked alpha females if they agreed with the following statements:
___ I consider myself tough.
___ I am stronger than most girls I know.
___ I enjoy athletics and physical activity.
It seems mental strength is related to physical strength. This could be a side-door into more alpha-ness. Want to feel more mentally tough? Maybe it’s time to join a bootcamp. Wish you had a thicker skin? Go lift some weights!
Remember, alpha female-hood is not like pregnancy (you are or you aren’t). I believe alpha female-ness is more of a spectrum. Some women have a high tendency to be alpha. They enjoy social conducting, being the leader and/or the center of attention. Some women only like being alpha females in their home, but not in the business environment. Some women are only social alphas around certain groups of friends. That’s okay!
Alpha Female Trait #5: Are Sought Out
Do people constantly ask your opinion? Are you the go-to person in your group of friends? Do you give advice? Researchers found that alpha females are often put in a position of mentorship, whether they like it or not. People seek their guidance. People ask them for advice. People put them in leadership positions.
Alpha females are sought out for their help.
Alpha females also seek out ways to help.
The research also found that the majority of the female leaders reported feeling an internal satisfaction in being able to give back to others. They mentored, volunteered, and gave back to the people around them. I’ve seen this phenomenon in action. One of our Science of People programs is a certification in body language. I have noticed that many of our Certified Body Language Trainers are alphas who are both sought out by others and seek out others to help them.
Alpha Female Trait #6: Highly Ambitious
I was very inspired while reading the studies on alpha females. Alpha females feel their ambition is limitless. That the bounds of their success do not exist. That they could achieve anything. How incredible! This doesn’t mean that alphas have to go it alone. In fact, quite the contrary. Many of the of the veteran alpha female leaders discussed the essential influential factor of having emotional support from others. And this external support didn’t have to come from a traditional two parent home or immediate family. Ambitious alpha females:
- Seek out mentors
- Seek out challenges
- Look for new opportunities
- Want more — more income, more chances, more from life
The research also found that the alpha females who self-identified as leaders felt a sense of personal charisma and empowerment. And, luckily, these traits can and should be learned (see the importance of learning in Trait #3). We teach you how to be more confident, charismatic, acceptably assertive and step into your leadership role in our flagship communication course, People School.
Alpha Female Trait #7: Love Their Mommas (and Daddys)
In the study “College Student Leaders: Meet the Alpha Female” researchers found that the family situations and early socialization of alpha females mattered. Their relationship with their parents was strong, especially with their mothers. This makes sense — when women come from a strong, solid family foundation, they feel they have more courage to venture out. A motherly female role model (whether the mother was alpha or not) also gives encouragement to a budding alpha personality.
You might be wondering if alpha-ness is nature or nurture? The answer is still unclear. The research indicates many alpha qualities can emerge early, but most attributes take time to develop.
Alpha Female Trait #8: Cultivate Harmony
In the book The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, she discusses the evolutionary and biological importance for females to get along and keep harmony in a group. From a very young age girls are taught—far more than boys–to share, cooperate and play fair. Girls get very good at reading others emotions and adapting to the tone of a group. Alpha females actually make it easier for a group of girls to interact because there is one unspoken leader. This leader sets the tone for the group and allows girls to get along without having a power struggle. In this way, alpha females are often social conductors. Some other interesting alpha female phenomena I personally have noticed:
Alpha females are social conductors; non-alpha females are her orchestra.
The next time you are at a party or networking event, try this fascinating experiment: Find a group of three or more women —you do not need to be close enough to hear them, they just should be in your line of sight. Put a five-minute timer on your phone or watch and take note of the direction of the women’s feet. Almost always, women point their feet toward the person they are most interested in or who they feel is leading the group’s tempo. In only five minutes you will be able to see where the majority of the women are pointing their feet. Amazingly, you will notice that most of the women in the group will be pointing toward the same woman–even if they are in a circle and even if that woman is not talking.
When the alpha female leaves, a social vacuum is created.
Another way you can spot the alpha female of a group is by watching how each group member exits. When non-alphas leave the group nothing much happens—conversation continues, the gap closes and group members move on. However, when THE alpha female (and there only can be one, see below for details) you will see something odd happen. Either conversation stops completely and the group members look around expectantly for a new alpha, or the group disperses.
There can be only one alpha female per cluster.
What happens when two alpha females are in the same office? One word: Disaster. Or, maybe two words: Disaster and Drama. The alpha female with the higher degree of alpha-ness usually takes charge and the second alpha female backs down. Well, she seethes, plots revenge and then backs down. In social groups, most of the female drama comes when two alpha females are competing to be the social conductor and non-alpha females (or alpha females to a lesser degree) are not sure who to follow.
But…there must be at least one alpha female.
Oddly, there must only be one alpha female, but there also has to be AT LEAST one. We all have experienced (whether we knew it or not) a group without an alpha female. We might describe it as ‘awkward,’ ‘weird,’ or ‘boring.’ This is because in a group of women with very low alpha female tendencies no one is sure how to act, what to talk about, or the social pace. Alpha females actually have the very important role of social lubrication. Watch more about this in our video:
Alpha Female Trait #9: Exceptional Confidence
The alpha woman considers herself equal to her peers and believes her ability to achieve success is limitless. Many alpha women are able to maintain high achievement in educational and career endeavors and have demonstrated more ambition than the traditional female leader.
Confidence is contagious. With this confidence comes a kind of contagiousness. If you ever are observing an alpha female in a group, you will notice that the entire group is taking ‘social cues’ from her. The other women might hold their body like she does. They might talk in the same voice tone. They might even laugh for the same amount of time as the alpha does.
While being an alpha female is incredibly powerful, alpha females also report some negative aspects. The research participants in a study in the Journal of Leadership Education expressed having to pay a price for their status and strong alpha female identity. They felt at times that they were negatively labeled and stereotyped. They also reported feeling forced to live up to very high expectations. What does this mean? Female alphas need to come up with creative ways to manage the negative effects of their power while reaping the benefits.
Still not sure if you are an alpha female? Be sure to take our alpha female quiz! Want to learn to leverage more of your strengths? Read these articles next:
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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