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Hormones and the Human Alpha Female

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The concept of the alpha female has become widely accepted as a form of female identity in the West. Though relationships between hormone concentrations and alpha-related traits have been demonstrated in alpha nonhuman primates, this has not been examined in the case of the human alpha female. The present study examined the associations of testosterone and cortisol, as well as 3 other hormones, estradiol, oxytocin, and progesterone derived from hair samples, with 11 variables related to the expression of the alpha female identity in a small non-random sample (N=126) of self-identified alpha and non-alpha women in North America. The results revealed statistically significant differences between these groups. When compared to non-alpha women, alpha women scored higher than non-alphas in measures for masculinity, leadership, low introversion, self-esteem, and exhibited lower hair cortisol levels. Alphas exhibited slightly lower estradiol and oxytocin levels than non-alphas though these differences were non-significant. Similar non-significant differences were also found in the case of sexual experience, sexual dominance, testosterone, and progesterone. Though cortisol was not associated with masculine traits, it was positively and significantly associated with leadership. Cortisol was also negatively and significantly associated with strength and a measure for femininity. Progesterone, testosterone, and oxytocin were positively and significantly associated with enjoying sex, as was oxytocin with playing a dominant role in sexual encounters. Surprisingly, testosterone was not associated with alpha status nor with the measure of masculinity, and estradiol was not associated with any of the variables. The results imply that women who identify as alpha may experience less physiological stress than non-alpha females as measured by their lower cortisol levels.
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1
1Hormones and the Human Alpha Female
2Monika K. Sumra*
3 Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, ON, M1C 1A4,
4 Canada
5* monika@bunkaleadership.com
6Abstract
7 The concept of the alpha female has become widely accepted as a form of female identity in the
8 West. Though relationships between hormone concentrations and alpha-related traits have been
9 demonstrated in alpha nonhuman primates, this has not been examined in the case of the human
10 alpha female. The present study examined the associations of testosterone and cortisol, as well as
11 3 other hormones, estradiol, oxytocin, and progesterone derived from hair samples, with 11
12 variables related to the expression of the alpha female identity in a small non-random sample
13 (N=126) of self-identified alpha and non-alpha women in North America. The results revealed
14 statistically significant differences between these groups. When compared to non-alpha women,
15 alpha women scored higher than non-alphas in measures for masculinity, leadership, low
16 introversion, self-esteem, and exhibited lower hair cortisol levels. Alphas exhibited slightly
17 lower estradiol and oxytocin levels than non-alphas though these differences were non-
18 significant. Similar non-significant differences were also found in the case of sexual experience,
19 sexual dominance, testosterone, and progesterone. Though cortisol was not associated with
20 masculine traits, it was positively and significantly associated with leadership. Cortisol was also
21 negatively and significantly associated with strength and a measure for femininity. Progesterone,
22 testosterone, and oxytocin were positively and significantly associated with enjoying sex, as was
23 oxytocin with playing a dominant role in sexual encounters. Surprisingly, testosterone was not
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24 associated with alpha status nor with the measure of masculinity, and estradiol was not
25 associated with any of the variables. The results imply that women who identify as alpha may
26 experience less physiological stress than non-alpha females as measured by their lower cortisol
27 levels.
28 Introduction
29 The influence of hormones includes “intrinsic feedbacks of social context and social behavior on
30 hormones” [1-16]. Behavior is driven by internal and external/environmental stimuli which act
31 on neural systems [16]. The reciprocal relationship between hormones and social behavior
32 demonstrates that hormones do not determine behavior but may increase or decrease the
33 probability of the expression of a given behavior [16]. Given that dominance as a behavioral
34 strategy can be used to gain or maintain high status in society, it is not surprising that a large
35 body of literature has focused on understanding how biological factors, specifically hormones,
36 may influence dominance behaviors [8].
37
38 The cross-disciplinary interest in the relationship between social status and hormones is not new
39 [14, 17-26]. Previous research has demonstrated that hormones, specifically cortisol,
40 progesterone, estradiol (primary in women of reproductive age), testosterone, and the peptide
41 hormone oxytocin, correlate with behavioral traits deemed as “alpha” in women [8, 26-35]. For
42 example, attributes including self-assertion, confidence, conceit, forcefulness, control, and
43 willfulness have been associated with higher circulating testosterone levels in women, and lower
44 levels with absence of these alpha traits [28].
45
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46 Along with engaging in aggressive behaviors, alpha female individuals have also been found to
47 behave in a more cooperative and communal manner [36]. For example, alpha female bonobos
48 maintain cohesion through affiliation while also engaging in aggressive behaviors to keep males
49 away from food [37]. Animal studies have revealed that increased levels of oxytocin are
50 associated with behaviors that promote affiliation, cooperation and prosociality (performing acts
51 that benefit or help others) with other females [38,39]. Communal behavior or affiliation has also
52 been shown to be associated with the expression of the alpha female identity [40]. Research in
53 humans, however, has yet to be conducted. The peptide hormone oxytocin has a special
54 relevance to female behavior because its effects are strongly modulated by estrogen [41].
55 Estradiol has been linked to dominance behavior. In one-on-one dominance contests, women
56 who expressed higher power motivation also had higher circulating estradiol levels both before
57 and after the contest, compared to women who had lower power motivation [32].
58
59 When it comes to hormones and alpha status, much of the research within this context has
60 focused primarily on a specific masculine trait, aggression. For example, Gladue (1991) [42]
61 found that both testosterone and estradiol, were positively correlated with aggression in men. In
62 women however, these correlations were negative [42]. Cashdan [23], examined hormones and
63 competitive aggression in 30 women and found that women with low levels of testosterone were
64 less likely to express their competitive feelings through verbal aggression than women with
65 higher levels of testosterone. That study, however, also found that estradiol was not related to
66 competitive tactics. Women with high estradiol levels reported fewer competitive interactions in
67 athletics than did other women. Aggression has been associated with high testosterone and low
68 cortisol levels in women [26], as well as negatively associated with estradiol levels [32].
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69 While some research has found social rank to be associated with stress in primates as measured
70 by elevated cortisol levels [25, 43, 44], other research has found no association [25]. There is
71 evidence to support that high levels of estradiol and high levels of progesterone are associated
72 with low levels of aggression and that estradiol may also influence behaviors in women other
73 than aggression including dominance, assertiveness, and risk-taking behaviors [26].
74
75 More recently, there has been a focus on understanding how hormone levels may jointly
76 influence dominance and other status-seeking behaviors in humans with respect to leadership.
77 Mehta and Josephs [30], examined hormone regulation of dominance in women leaders. They
78 contend that leadership is one of the most important domains within which to study status and
79 social dominance. For their study men and women were randomly assigned to the position of a
80 leader or follower and then asked to complete a leadership task in a simulated competition (how
81 to move blocks to make a specific design). These interactions were video-taped, observations
82 recorded, and each identified leader was rated in terms of dominance. Mehta and Josephs [30]
83 developed a 12-item scale that indexed dominance in leaders. These items assessed dominance as
84 characterized by behaviors linked to, motivation to gain high status including assertiveness,
85 confidence, being energetic, enthusiastic, extraverted, and verbally fluent, display leader-like and
86 directive behavior, being decisive, displaying masculinity and an expansive posture. Using
87 salivary samples, their results revealed that testosterone interacted with cortisol to predict
88 dominance in leaders – that is, dominance in leaders can be predicted by the joint regulation of
89 testosterone and cortisol, where low cortisol and higher testosterone together, are related to
90 increased dominance [30]. In their study on leadership position and circulating testosterone and
91 cortisol levels in male executives, Sherman et al. [14] evaluated the relationship between salivary
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92 cortisol and testosterone levels and a measure of attained status – the number of subordinates
93 over which the executive had authority. They found that executive males who exhibited high
94 testosterone and low cortisol levels were more likely to occupy high-status positions whereas
95 low-testosterone, low-cortisol executives were more likely to occupy lower status positions [14].
96 Testosterone has also been implicated in sexual behavior of women [29]. For example, Udry [45]
97 found that though testosterone was positively related to interest in sexual behavior for both males
98 and females, for females specifically, this interest is only expressed in the absence of a father and
99 low participation in team sports [45].
100
101 When it comes to estradiol, progesterone, and the peptide hormone oxytocin however, research is
102 scant. Where research in this area has been undertaken, oxytocin has been found to potentially
103 increase aggression in women by lowering perceptions of danger that would normally inhibit
104 women from retaliating. Low levels of aggression have also been associated with elevated levels
105 of estradiol and progesterone [26]. Though testosterone is required for the expression of
106 masculine traits such as aggression in most vertebrates, including mice and humans, estrogen
107 also plays a role [46]. The enzyme aromatase converts testosterone into estrogen and thus
108 increased levels of testosterone lead to increased levels of estrogen [46]. Despite the dual
109 requirement of estrogen and testosterone for the expression of masculine behaviors, how these
110 dual hormonal pathways are expressed by alpha females has not been examined.
111
112 Although it has been established that hormones respond to social context and vice versa [35],
113 what is not clear is how these responses are shaped by social norms related to gender, in this
114 case, a specific archetype of female identity, the alpha female. What is absent from the literature
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115 is whether variability in the expression of female identity, specifically between alpha and non-
116 alpha women, may, or may not be connected to neuroendocrine expression. The present research
117 tests the relationships between hormonal and behavioral traits of the alpha female to gain greater
118 insight into our understanding of the alpha female identity from a biosocial perspective. The
119 results of the present study provide an opportunity to better understand whether hormones may
120 represent a biological expression of the alpha female identity. Specifically, the present research
121 seeks to understand the associations between cortisol, testosterone, and alpha female attributes as
122 well as how other hormones such as estradiol, progesterone, and oxytocin, may also play a role
123 in the expression of this female identity. Examined alongside results from recent research on the
124 expression of the alpha female identity which found masculine traits to be a predictor of alpha
125 status [40], it is predicted that alpha women will exhibit higher testosterone but lower cortisol
126 levels than non-alpha females. It is also predicted that testosterone will be positively associated
127 with masculine traits.
128
129 Methods
130 Participants, recruitment and exclusion
131 Recently, Sumra [40] conducted an extensive review and textual analyses of the academic and
132 popular literature of the human alpha female to examine the social construction and expression
133 of the alpha female identity in a small non-random sample of North American women (N=398).
134 In that study [40], participants completed a 96-question survey and were asked questions in the
135 end of this survey about the alpha female identity. Participants could not go back to change their
136 answers. Included at the end of that survey was a definition of the alpha female following which
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137 women were asked to respond yes, no, or maybe as to whether they considered themselves an
138 alpha female based on that definition. That review revealed 2 predominant alpha female
139 representations in the academic and popular literature – one more masculine versus one more
140 feminine – and 21 variables likely to be associated with the expression of the alpha female
141 identity. That study [40] found that the alpha female was a recognized socially constructed
142 female identity. Univariate analysis revealed positive and highly significant differences in self-
143 reported mean scores between alpha (N=94) and non-alpha (N=304) females for 10 variables
144 related to expression of the alpha female identity. In that study [40], the measure of masculine
145 traits was identified as the only predictor of alpha female status as per the multiple regression
146 model. Interestingly, both alpha and non-alpha women scored the same for the measure of
147 feminine traits. Further, both groups scored higher for feminine traits than masculine traits.
148 Participants for the present study were recruited from Sumra’s [40] previous study. As chemical
149 birth control or hormonal therapy may influence hormone levels, women who indicated either
150 were excluded. A total of 32 alpha and 94 non-alpha women remained for a total of 126
151 participants. The present study evaluates the potential associations between 5 specific hormones
152 (cortisol, estradiol, progesterone, oxytocin, and testosterone), and 10 alpha female -related traits
153 which include measures of masculinity, leadership, strength, low introversion, self-esteem, life
154 satisfaction, sexual experience, initiating sex, enjoying sexual intercourse, and playing a
155 dominant role in sexual encounters, which were found to be associated with the expression of the
156 alpha female identity in Sumra’s 2019 [40] study. The average age category for the sample
157 across all women was 35-37 years, and the average education level was a bachelor’s degree. For
158 those women who were employed the average income was approximately $58,000.00 annually.
159
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160 Measures
161 Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) – Masculine and Feminine Personality Traits
162 Since its development over four decades ago, the Bem Sex Role Inventory or BSRI [47] has been
163 the most commonly used and repeatedly validated measure of gender roles and traits [48]. The
164 original BSRI [47] includes 60 dichotomous items divided into 3 subscales - masculinity,
165 femininity, and neutral. Each subscale includes 20 adjectives that represent typical masculine,
166 feminine, and 20 neutral traits in Western society. The condensed versions of the BSRI-M and
167 BSRI-F based on a total of 10 alpha female related behavioral traits in Sumra’s 2019 work [40]
168 were used in the present study. These versions exhibited adequate internal consistency for both
169 the BSRI-M (Cronbach’s =0.64) and the BSRI-F (Cronbach’s =0.72). Respondents were
170 asked to score each item on a 5-point Likert Scale from never (1) to always (5). Means for
171 masculine and feminine categories were calculated to derive corresponding masculinity and
172 femininity scores. Higher masculinity scores indicate higher affiliation with masculine traits,
173 higher feminine scores indicate higher affiliation with feminine traits, equal scores in both
174 masculine and feminine traits indicate androgyny, and low scores in both masculinity and
175 femininity indicate an undifferentiated gender.
176
177 The Alpha Female Inventory (AFI) Leadership, Strength and Low
178 Introversion (extroversion)
179 The subscales of the Alpha Female Inventory (AFI) developed by Ward, Popson, and DiPaolo
180 [49], was used to measure leadership (AFI-L), strength (AFI-S), and extroversion (AFI-LI). The
181 AFI [49] is a 14-item measure of alpha female personality. Items are scored on a 5-point Likert
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182 scale from strongly disagree-1 to strongly agree-5 and summed, with higher scores indicating
183 greater levels of leadership (the desire to be a leader, dominant, and assertive), strength
184 (perceived superiority and physical strength), and low introversion (as an index of extroversion).
185 Defined by Ward, Popson, and DiPaolo [49] as “being quiet and withdrawn from social
186 situations”, low introversion, is considered a proxy measure of extroversion. AFI-LI items are
187 reverse-coded where higher scores indicate lower levels of being quiet and withdrawn.
188
189 Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) – Self-Esteem
190 The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) [50] is a validated measure of self-esteem. Composed
191 of 10 items that assess both positive and negative feelings about the self or “self-worth”, it is the
192 most widely used self-report instrument of confidence and self-esteem [51]. The RSES is
193 unidimensional and items are scored on a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly
194 disagree (0) to strongly agree (3) [51]. The RSES was modified to reflect an additional choice of
195 neutral (3) to avoid neutral response bias. Research suggests that because negatively worded
196 items may be interpreted differently by different groups, using the RSES may have limited value
197 [52]. Inclusion of a neutral avoids responses at the extreme ends of the RSES [52]. The resulting
198 scale was a 5-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Some
199 questions were also reworded for simplicity and clarity. Items were summed, and higher scores
200 indicated greater self-esteem.
201
202 Sexual dominance aspects – Frequency, Dominant Role, Sexual Experience,
203 Initiating, and Enjoying Sex
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204 Five aspects of sexual dominance previously used in Sumra’s 2019 study [40] were assessed.
205 These included sex frequencies, playing a dominant role in sexual encounters, taking initiative in
206 sexual encounters, enjoyment during sex, and sexual experience.
207
208 Life Satisfaction
209 The present study also included an assessment of life satisfaction. A single question was asked,
210 “Describe the level of satisfaction and fulfillment you feel in your life”. Responses were scored
211 on a 5-point Likert scale (0-none, 1-low, 2-moderate, 3-high, and 4-extremely high).
212
213 Hair Hormone Analysis
214 Hair has become recognized as a reliable substrate for measuring hormone concentrations in
215 animals and humans [53-58]. When compared to other methods of sampling such as blood, urine,
216 and saliva, hair sampling is considered most non-invasive, and samples can be collected by non-
217 health care professionals [55]. Unlike urine, saliva, and blood, hormone concentrations in hair
218 are expressed over a longer period of time rather than at a given point in time [59]. In the field of
219 hair hormone analysis, most research in this area has focused primarily on the assessment of
220 chronic stress and the analysis of the stress hormone cortisol in hair [60]. Saliva, blood, and urine
221 are subject to circadian variation in hormone secretion resulting in fluctuating levels over a 24-
222 hour period [61]. For example, salivary, blood, and urinary cortisol levels are typically measured
223 over a 24-hour period usually starting with a first morning sample with subsequent samples taken
224 at intervals throughout the day. Single urine samples collected at any given time reflect cortisol
225 secretion since the last urinary void. Only urine collected throughout the day captures cortisol
226 secretion over a 24-hour period [59]. Where urine samples can provide hormonal profiles for a
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227 24-hour period, saliva and serum provide “point estimates” for cortisol secreted prior to
228 collection (~20 minutes for saliva and <3 minutes for blood) [62].
229 For the present study, hair samples were sent to a commercial lab (Viagaurd AccuMetrics,
230 Toronto, Canada) for measurement of cortisol, estradiol, testosterone, progesterone, and oxytocin
231 concentrations. Use of a special collection kit ensured the root ends faced the same direction.
232 Hair were cut close to the scalp to ensure that the sample was collected between periods of dying
233 hair, if hair was dyed on a regular basis. All kits were sealed and stored in individual envelopes.
234 Samples were prepared using the first 3 centimeters of hair closest to the scalp which were
235 washed in isopropyl alcohol by soaking for 5 minutes followed by a rinse. Any hair follicles that
236 were present were cut to ensure that only hormones from the hair shaft were extracted. Because
237 the hair roots had been removed, only hormone concentrations from the hair shaft were
238 extracted. Hair shaft samples were cut into small pieces with surgical scissors then weighed in a
239 1.5mL tube. The weight of the samples ranged between 0.69 and 3.67 mg. The samples were
240 then ground to a fine powder prior to an overnight extraction in methanol. The supernatant from
241 each of the extractions was then removed and evaporated until completely dry. Once the
242 methanol had been removed, each sample was resuspended in 250μL of phosphatebuffered
243 saline (PBS) at pH 8.0. The samples were vortexed for 1 min until the extract was dissolved. The
244 cortisol, estradiol, testosterone, progesterone, and oxytocin extracted from the hair were
245 measured using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry with standards for each of these
246 hormones as reference. The dissolved supernatant for each hormone was compared with the
247 standard and normalized with the weight of the hair to give pg/mg values. The respective
248 analytical errors were assessed by replicate measures of cortisol, estradiol, testosterone,
249 progesterone, and oxytocin standards and determined to be ±7 pg/mg.
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250
251
252 Ethics Statement
253 This research, including the method of obtaining informed consent, was approved by the
254 University of Toronto’s Research Ethics Board (Protocol #27117). Informed consent was
255 obtained for each phase of the present study from all participants. Signed consent forms were
256 obtained from those participants who provided hair samples before data collection which were
257 retained by the primary author. Terms of service were adhered to for all social media websites
258 where data were collected.
259
260 Statistical Analyses
261 Descriptive statistics including the mean, median and standard deviation were run for all
262 variables. These included 5 hormone variables CORT (cortisol), EST (estradiol), PROG
263 (progesterone), OXY (oxytocin,) and TEST (testosterone), and the 10 alpha female behavioral
264 variables and the measure of feminine traits identified in Sumra’s [40] 2019 study. Differences
265 between the alpha and non-alpha groups were assessed using nonparametric Mann-Whitney U-
266 tests. All statistical tests were conducted using the Number Cruncher Statistical Systems (NCSS)
267 statistical software package [63].
268
269 Results
270 The results from the Mann-Whitney U tests revealed that when compared to non-alpha females,
271 alpha females (N=32) had significantly higher mean scores for masculine traits (BSRI-M),
272 leadership, low introversion, and self-esteem (RSES), and exhibited lower cortisol (CORT)
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273 levels than non-alpha females (N=94) (Table 1). Small but non-significant differences in
274 strength, BSRI-F, life satisfaction, initiates sex and enjoys sex were also found. Alpha females
275 exhibited slightly lower levels of estradiol (EST) and oxytocin (OXY) than non-alphas, and
276 although they scored higher in sexual experience, playing a dominant role in sexual encounters
277 (Dom_Role_Sex), testosterone (TEST), and progesterone (PROG) than non-alpha women, these
278 differences were not significant statistically.
279
280 The results from the nonparametric correlation analysis revealed a number of significant
281 relationships (Table 2). Cortisol was positively correlated with leadership and negatively
282 correlated with strength and feminine traits (BSRI-F). Progesterone and oxytocin were positively
283 correlated with sexual enjoyment (Enjoys Sex) as was testosterone. Oxytocin was also positively
284 correlated with playing a dominant role in sexual encounters (Dom_Role_Sex), and negatively
285 correlated with masculine traits (BSRI-M). Estradiol (EST) was not correlated with any of the
286 variables. Leadership position in the workplace as measured by management level is included in
287 (Table 3). Approximately 44% of alpha females held a mid to upper management position versus
288 35% of non-alpha females.
289
Table 1. Results from univariate analyses for alpha and non-alpha female groups
Alpha
Non-Alpha
Variable
N
Mean
SD
N
Mean
SD
Masculine Traits (BSRI-M)
32
3.806
0.395
94
3.534
0.456
Feminine Traits (BSRI-F)
32
4.187
0.451
94
4.1
0.467
Leadership
32
20.219
3.338
94
18.096
3.642
Strength
32
16.75
2.639
94
15.925
2.352
Low Introversion
32
13.75
2.747
94
12.425
3.244
Self-Esteem (RSES)
32
39.719
6.624
94
37.181
5.98
Life Satisfaction
32
2.5
0.824
94
2.531
0.786
Sexual Experience
32
1.875
1.039
91
1.538
0.981
Initiate Sex
32
2.688
1.029
91
2.582
0.844
Enjoy Sex
31
4.194
1.138
91
4.022
1.053
Dom Role_Sex
32
2.406
0.797
91
2.242
0.848
CORT
32
28.389
6.531
94
31.765
7.309
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EST
32
0.866
0.311
94
0.931
0.327
PROG
32
28.064
8.145
94
26.218
8.814
OXY
32
7.967
1.922
94
8.122
2.088
TEST
32
0.746
0.313
94
0.661
0.344
Education
32
3.213
1.252
94
3.398
1.026
Employment
32
3.249
0.761
94
3.046
0.739
Income
32
3.638
1.789
94
3.579
1.702
290
291
292
293
294
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Table 2. Nonparametric Spearman correlations among variables used in the study (N=126) *P<0.05, **P<0.01, ***P<0.0001
Leadership
Strength
Low Int.
Self-
Esteem
RSES
Masc.
Traits
BSRI-M
Fem.
Traits
BSRI-F
Life
Sat.
Enjoys
Sex
Init.Sex
Dom_Role_Sex
Sex
Exp
CORT
EST
PROG
OXY
TEST
Leadership
1
Strength
0.270**
1
Low Int.
0.473***
0.393***
1
Self-Esteem
RSES
0.485***
0.381***
0.474***
1
Masc.
Traits
BSRI-M
0.438***
0.515***
0.542***
0.322***
1
Fem. Traits
BSRI-F
0.062
0.085
0.164
0.13
0.168
1
Life Sat.
-0.192*
-0.062
-0.137
-0.157
-0.023
0.132
1
Enjoys
Sex
0.095
0.048
0.065
-0.053
0.069
-0.05
0.122
1
Initiates
Sex
0.018
-0.047
0.04
0.043
-0.002
-0.019
0.135
0.548***
1
Dom_Role_
Sex
0.061
0.01
0.065
-0.021
0.017
-0.014
0.198*
0.357***
0.553***
1
Sex
Exp
0.098
-0.002
0.059
0.126
0.194*
-0.019
-0.075
0.183*
0.018
-0.005
1
CORT
0.177**
-0.182**
-0.003
0.091
0.115
-0.187*
0.023
-0.02
0.03
0.017
-
0.003
1
EST
0.073
-0.02
-0.063
0.027
-0.09
-0.016
0.114
-0.062
0.055
0.013
-
0.069
0.163
1
PROG
0.037
-0.083
-0.029
0.063
-0.089
-0.085
0.029
0.243**
0.079
0.097
0.047
0.071
0.096
1
OXY
0.021
-0.113
-0.09
-0.107
-0.231**
0.066
-0.092
0.196*
0.147
0.259**
0.028
-0.108
0.1
0.104
1
TEST
0.137
-0.155
0.138
0.019
-0.062
0.068
0.046
0.024
-0.05
0.039
0.078
-0.139
0.078
0.019
0.197*
1
295
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Table 3. Management position and alpha status
Position
alphas
%
non-alphas
%
P-value
Non to low mgmt
N=18
0.56
N=61
0.65
0.597
Mid to upper mgmt
N=14
0.44
N=33
0.35
32
94
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297 Discussion
298 The present study examined the relationship between 5 hormones (cortisol, estradiol,
299 progesterone, oxytocin, and testosterone) and 11 alpha female variables in a small non-random
300 sample of women in North America (N=126). As predicted, alpha women exhibited higher
301 testosterone and lower cortisol levels than non-alpha women. Only the difference in cortisol
302 levels between alpha and non-alphas, however, was statistically significant. Within this context,
303 these results are consistent with similar research in humans [13,14], and non-human primates
304 [20] and contribute to the growing research on dual-hormone patterns with respect to
305 testosterone and cortisol [15, 64]. For example, Sapolsky [20], found that in stable dominance
306 hierarchies of wild olive baboons, subordinate males exhibited higher cortisol levels than alpha
307 males. In Sherman et al.’s [14] study, high testosterone and low cortisol predicted the number of
308 subordinates among male business executives. Other research on the association between cortisol
309 levels and alpha status, however, have revealed mixed results [18, 65].
310
311 Alpha individuals are found both to have higher [18, 65] and lower cortisol levels than non-
312 alphas [13, 14, 18, 21]. According to Sapolsky and Ray [65], when it comes to nonhuman
313 primates, dominance style problematizes the validity of low cortisol levels as a marker for alpha
314 status. For example, Sapolsky and Ray [65] found that low cortisol levels are not necessarily a
315 feature of all dominant male baboons in stable hierarchies. Low cortisol levels are exhibited by
316 alpha males who engage in a particular style of dominance in alpha males who display a high
317 degree of social skillfulness, control, and predictability over social hazards, such as, the ability to
318 distinguish between winning or losing a fight [65]. In contrast, alpha males without this skillset
319 were found to have cortisol concentrations as high as subordinate males [65]. Further Sapolsky
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320 and Ray [65] found that male baboons who held longer alpha tenure had exhibited lower cortisol
321 levels [65]. This suggests that cortisol levels in alpha individuals may fluctuate over time. In the
322 case of the present research, perhaps the longer a woman identifies as an alpha female, the lower
323 her cortisol levels may be. The results of the present study revealed a positive association
324 between cortisol levels and leadership scores across all women. This result is significant for
325 future research that examines the relationship between cortisol levels in women and leadership
326 position in the workplace.
327
328 The finding that testosterone is not correlated with masculine traits in the present group of
329 women is inconsistent with previous research that have found masculine traits to be positively
330 correlated with testosterone concentration in women. For example, Baucom, Besch, and
331 Callahan’s [27] study of 84 undergraduate students who completed Baucom’s Masculinity and
332 Femininity Scales [66] as well as the BSRI and an Adjective Check List, found that women with
333 higher masculinity scores exhibited higher testosterone levels than women with higher
334 femininity scores. They also found that women with higher testosterone levels perceived
335 themselves as self-directed, action-oriented, and resourceful [27]. It is important to note
336 however, that Baucom, Besch, and Callahan [27] stated that masculine-sex-typed females
337 (women who scored higher for masculine traits than feminine traits) exhibited “somewhat”
338 higher testosterone levels than more feminine-sex-typed females (women who scored higher for
339 feminine traits than masculine traits).
340
341
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342 Limitations and Future Research
343 The results of the present research are subject to several important limitations. First, the present
344 study relies on self-identification and does not include data on how those women would be
345 identified by others (e.g. as alpha or non-alpha). Though self-identification and alpha-identity
346 perception (positive, neutral, or negative) could be considered measurable aspects of identity,
347 they are not the only ones. Entativity, or the degree to which groups are perceived by outsiders or
348 non-group members represents another dimension [67]. The opinions and perceptions of non-
349 alpha women and men, and particular self-identified alpha women, may also provide insight into
350 the social construction of the alpha female identity.
351
352 The present study is also limited by non-random sampling, and therefore may include some bias,
353 the nature of which is unknown. It is also potentially limited by small sample sizes for both the
354 non-alpha and alpha sampling groups. It is therefore possible that the results do not accurately
355 reflect the differences between these groups of women in North America. Both of these sampling
356 limitations might affect the generalizability of the results to a larger population beyond the scope
357 of the present study.
358
359 Similar to Sherman et al. [13], the present findings raise the possibility that higher testosterone
360 levels in conjunction with lower cortisol levels may predispose women to regard themselves as
361 alpha female. Though hormones can affect many aspects of human behavior, the correlations
362 between specific hormones and specific behaviors are often weak and are likely influenced by
363 many factors [68]. As data were collected through the survey and focus groups, self-identified
364 alpha females were not observed in their natural environments limiting insight into how
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365 behaviors may be mediated or enhanced by hormones within different social contexts. This is
366 important because humans have complex social lives operating in varying contexts, belong to
367 different social groups and hierarchies, and perform a variety of social roles [22]. Within this
368 context, a self-identified alpha female may not necessarily mean that she is all alpha, all of the
369 time [40]. Future ethnographic research focused on the daily lived experiences and the various
370 contexts of the alpha female may provide greater insight into the potential fluidity and variation
371 in the hormonal expression of the alpha female identity.
372
373 Future research that evaluates the relationships between testosterone and cortisol, and female
374 leaders who are considered alpha and non-alpha, may shed light on whether these particular
375 hormones do in fact play a role in the likelihood of occupying a leadership position for women
376 more generally, and more importantly, may also provide the opportunity to gain deeper insight
377 into a potential variant of leadership itself – the alpha female leader. Additionally, the result that
378 leadership is positively associated with stress warrants follow-up research on alpha females who
379 occupy leadership roles.
380 It is important to note that there have been very few examples in the literature of oxytocin being
381 measured in hair. In one study by Hamel [69], it was determined that hair likely does not provide
382 a good means for measuring long-term oxytocin levels, and that oxytocin may not be
383 incorporated into hair in the same way as cortisol. It is unclear in that study, however, whether
384 the extraction of oxytocin from hair, or measurement by enzyme immunoassay (EIA) is the basis
385 of that determination in that study. As such, it is unclear whether the measurement of oxytocin
386 by mass spectrometry in the present study mitigates the problems with measuring oxytocin in
387 hair suggested by Hamel [69].
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388
389
390 Conclusions
391 The present research contributes to and has direct implications for research on dominance and
392 status-seeking behaviors in humans, specifically research on the human alpha female. It also has
393 direct implications for future leadership and alpha leadership research, and for the study of social
394 hierarchy in organizational research, including research that examines associations between
395 hormones and the attainment of social and professional status [13,14]. The finding that alpha
396 women exhibit lower cortisol levels than non-alpha women also has implications for research on
397 the relationship between alpha status and stress in humans.
398 Consideration of the findings of the present study alongside with those of Sumra [40], which
399 found that masculine traits predicted alpha status, raises more food for thought on what it means
400 to be an alpha female from a biosocial perspective. Alpha females associate leadership, self-
401 esteem, and being less introverted more with their identity more than other women and they are
402 less stressed as indexed by the hormone cortisol. Thus, the answer to the question “are hormone
403 levels associated with being an alpha female”, for this group of women, is yes, however, only in
404 the case of cortisol.
405
406 Acknowledgments
407
408 I would like to thank Dr. Michael Schillaci in the Department of Anthropology at the University
409 of Toronto Scarborough for his support, advice, and critical input.
410
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