Women On Top

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | February 12, 2008 9:26 am

Nicholas D. Kristof has an interesting Op-Ed in The New York TimesWhen Women Rule‘.

While no woman has been president of the United States — yet — the world does have several thousand years’ worth of experience with female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record puts men’s to shame.

After citing many examples, down the page he describes the ‘Goldberg paradigm‘:

..people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman. Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.

Sound familiar? He also points to several studies that have suggested it’s a disadvantage for a woman to be physically attractive when applying for a managerial job because she’s pegged as ‘stereotypically female‘ and therefore ‘unsuited‘ to becoming a boss. Translation: Whether we acknowledge it our not, subconscious cues about the way we look are going to play a role in how we’re perceived. Further, research shows that promoting one’s own successes is a helpful strategy for the guys, while ladies who highlight their accomplishments are a turn-off. Yes, even in the 21st century, these studies suggest we have a long way to go. sigh…

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts.

Now in my opinion, the same can be said for the fellas, and I’m certain a heck of a lot more goes into the big picture than there’s room to explore in a single Op-Ed, but Kristof does raise some very thought-provoking questions about successful women. He writes:

The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.

Gosh I hope that’s not true… What do readers think?


Comments (21)

  1. Echidne also wrote about this yesterday.

  2. Andrea

    like it or not, men rule the world-but we’re catching up 😉

    great video!

  3. Thinker

    One of these quotes that has been attributed to lots of people over the years:

    “To be accepted as successful, a woman must be twice as skilled as a man. Luckily, that isn’t so difficult…”

  4. Scott Belyea

    Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.

    Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa in the 50’s.


  5. I always find it amazing that although the three largest Muslim countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia) have all elected female leaders, as have India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, it’s still a big deal in the US.

  6. chezjake

    A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.

    Oh yeah? How about Oprah? (just the most obvious example)

  7. Erik

    Indeed. I became aware of my own prejudices toward authoritative women after I joined the work force. I think that Kristof is on to something. I don’t have any answers for society, but awareness of my own irrational thoughts have personally helped me. I realized that an authoritative woman is perceived as a bitch, while a man acting the same way would just be doing his job.

  8. IanR wrote:
    I always find it amazing that although the three largest Muslim countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia) have all elected female leaders, as have India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, it’s still a big deal in the US.

    Somewhat related from Kristof’s piece:

    Margaret Thatcher was a transformative figure, but women have been mediocre prime ministers or presidents in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Often, they haven’t even addressed the urgent needs of women in those countries.

    I have a pet theory about what’s going on.

    In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to navigate public prejudices — and these make democratic politics far more challenging for a woman than for a man.

    So Kristof is suggesting increased visibility through modern technology provides a more challenging environment for women in roles of leadership. It’s an interesting consideration.

    If true, might we ever be able to move past subconscious (or conscious) prejudices?

  9. Philip H.

    I wonder, though, how much of this is a gender difference, and how much is a generational difference? I see less reaction to strong women in positions of leadership from Gen-Xers and their successor generations then I do from our parents or grandparents. Perhaps it is because we see a lot of successful women in our generation in business and politics, perhaps its because many of us had mothers who were in some part feminists.

    of course, we could drag the demographic out, tease them to death, and still not come to an answer. What I do think is important is to continue the trend of good, expert, strong women leading, and rewarding them for doing so. its really the only path to gender equity that will work in the long run.

  10. Dark Tent

    Sheril says:
    “The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.”

    In some professions — politics, for example — the trade-off is very real (not just perception) and it applies to both women and men.

    The very qualities that make politicians “likable” (eg, giving jobs to their friends rather than to those who are most qualified) are often the ones that make them completely incompetent as leaders.

    The perfect example is George Bush. He is very “likable”, at least according to the “frat drinking party standard” (which many in this country seem to aspire to), but is he competent? (Is grass purple?)

    I’d say that the likability/competence issue is at the very root of many (if not most) of the “leadership” problems that this country faces.

    We don’t need leaders who will tell us what we want to hear in order to get elected, we need leaders who will say — and do — what is best for the country. Sometimes (often?) that is the very opposite of what most of us wish to hear.

  11. kec

    First of all, chezjake… is Oprah really considered competent and likable by everybody? I mean, obviously her viewers must like her, but outside of her target demographic I hear her mocked on a regular basis.

    But my response to the post…

    There are a lot of behaviors that are generally associated with leadership in men that are traditionally associated with “bitchy” women. I mean, what is one of the first things you can think of that would get a woman called a bitch? For me, “controlling” comes to mind immediately. And therefore the very act of being in power (being in control) puts a woman at risk of being viewed as a bitch. We have certain cultural expectations of how a “good” woman should act, and they can be summed up mostly as “women should be nice.” It is really unfortunate, but it is definitely there.

    Since I’ve realized this, I’ve really tried to catch myself when I think something negative about a woman leader and take a second to consider whether she is actually offensive or whether she is simply not acting like I unconsciously expect her to. I’m also trying to refrain from using the word “bitch” in both conversation and thought about say, political candidates. It is fine not to like a woman candidate, but female candidates shouldn’t get a different vocabulary to describe our dislike. It just encourages prejudice.

  12. Dale

    Dark Tent-
    Kristof said that. Not Sheril.
    – Dale

  13. Tony Jeremiah

    I think the primary assumption underlying the discussion, though, is that the glass ceiling effect is primarily a consequence of society. However, it’s more likely that interaction between societal and psychological factors are responsible for the phenomenon. Also, leadership selection involves more than just gender biases.

    Starting with physical biases, it’s very likely true that subconscious cues play a role. But importantly, for this to occur, one would have to be giving off such cues for such biases to arise. Also relevant, some cues are controllable when brought to awareness, others are simply out of one’s control. Take height as an example. It’s uncontrollable and appears to be a subconscious cue in leadership selection. In particular, research has shown that the percentage of U.S. presidents over 6 feet tall, has been greater than the percentage of 6 feet tall persons in the general population.

    Hair is more of a controllable subconscious cue that seems to be associated with power. I don’t know if there’s been any research on this, but it’s difficult to immediately think of a well-known world leader who was/is clearly balding. Somewhat off an odd contrast, women wearing the hair shorter is perceived more as a power cue, while wearing their hair longer hair is perceived as a non-power/relaxed cue (more commonly expressed as ‘letting one’s hair down’). If the term ‘physically attractive’ is meant to be associated with body type (e.g., the hour-glass shape), the reduction in chances of being selected for a managerial position might be for the same reason why tall males with hair tend to be selected as leaders–an ancient evolutionary cue indicating power (and possibly youth). However, in the instance of women, something like the hour glass shape (known to be a fertility cue), might subconsciously suggest to the hiring staff, that such a person may be devoted to family, and that may not be a desirable quality for more ruthless companies which adhere to the time is money rule. Indeed the family/career psychological conflict (more prominent for women) is a known contributor to the glass ceiling effect.

    There are other barriers as well that can be connected to the expression of being one’s own worst enemy. As an example, a 1999 Gallup poll asked men and women whether they would prefer to have a male or female boss. The results were: MALES–No preference (53%), male boss (35%), female boss (12%); FEMALES–No preference (36%); male boss (42%); female boss (22%). It’s somewhat surprising that males were showing a stronger no preference than females.
    In contrast, a longitudinal gallop poll showed that in 1933, 33% of women would vote for a female president; in 1999, 92% would vote for a female president.

    So as in most things, real change has to occur both internally and externally.

    In terms of the last question about leadership qualities in particular, the research does show gender differences in leadership qualities. Women tend to have leadership styles that are transactional and transformational (involving a great deal of collaboration with subordinates); men tend to have more autocratic and directive leadership styles (involving little collaboration with subordinates). So a more important question might be what leadership styles are relevant for particular tasks, rather than what gender makes the best leader.

  14. Oprah Winfrey’s a lot like Hillary Clinton – you either love her or hate her. I sometimes feel I’m the only person in America who only sort of likes Oprah. I don’t hate her, I’m glad for her success, but she can be really, really annoying.

    I guess I still feel the same about Hillary, but I do plan to vote for her. She’s got guts and smarts and you need someone that driven to be a good President.

    Extremely old cliche: “A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.” Well, while some people (mostly men) believe this, I do not. I know many women who are both competent and likable. I’ve also known women who were both incompetent AND unlikable. Sadly, at least one of these types was my boss. Ex-boss, because I quit about nine months after she got there. No one has worked for her longer than a year ever since. You think her boss might have noticed by now…

  15. Dark Tent

    “Kristof said that. Not Sheril.”

    Noted. Thanks, Dale.

  16. It’s not true that men don’t face a tradeoff between getting shit done vs. having people think they’re swell. Donald Trump is an obvious example, and no one’s fond of Bill Gates either. Maybe people view ruthlessness as even more of a turnoff in females than in males, but this is a second-order phenomenon. People don’t like cut-throat dominators.

    It’s also not true that women face unique difficulties re: their physical appearance. The average CEO in the US is 6’1, and the average CEO among one of those Forbes 400 (or 500, or whatever it is) is 6’2. So, a guy who’s 5’8 will be thought “stereotypically short” and have a tough time getting such a job.

    But is that irrational? Maybe the bulk of the workforce who the CEO is in charge of would not take him seriously if he were 5’8, but would if he were 6’2. Then those who hire would rationally discriminate against the short guy — he wouldn’t be able to get stuff done easily.

    The same may hold for attractive females: perhaps the bulk of the workforce would be too fixated on her good looks to focus clearly on what she was saying. Then those who hire would rationally discriminate against her.

    The obstacle here does not come from those who hire, and therefore the solution doesn’t have to do with them in any way. The source of the problem is the human nature of the workforce. The government could force firms to hire only good-looking female bosses, and the workforce would respond as they normally would, namely not taking them seriously or being distracted by her good looks, etc. As a result, the firm would suffer all kinds of losses.

    So, how do you alter human nature to be fair to good-looking women and short men? Environmental changes have not worked in any other case, so likely won’t work here. In short, we face a constraint on how the world will work — we may not like that human nature is a certain way, but what are you going to do about it?

    More, those who prefer plain female bosses may actually be onto something — it’s an empirical question of course, but the answer is not an a priori “they couldn’t know that” either. Good-looking females may have higher levels of feminine hormones, which may also affect her personality. Genes and hormones are like this, of course: they affect many things above and below the neck at once.

    There are surely studies supporting this link. So, the discrimination again may be rational: conditioning on her being quite pretty, the probability that she’ll be a ruthless go-getter may be lower than if she were plain looking.

  17. I don’t agree with the assertion that Indira Gandhi could ever be called “mediocre”. You may not agree with her policies, but she was an effective leader. She navigated a very turbulent time, dealt with several real threats to the integrity of the country. As for the others – were they really any more mediocre than the men who have run those countries? Megawati perhaps, but in leaving office peacefully she probably did a lot for democracy in her country.

    I think by calling them “mediocre” Kristoff is falling victim to the same problem he’s writing about – he’s judging women by a higher standard than men. He’s being the sexist.

    Regarding the tradeoff between competent and likable – isn’t that tradeoff universal, at least to some extent? I think we see most people in leadership roles as either one or the other.

    Of course, where this gets really interesting is right here, on this blog. I usually read this on an RSS reader, which means I don’t know if Sheril or Chris is writing. I can usually tell though, based not so much on writing style as the “feel” I get off the message. Sheril writes more like a woman, Chris writes more like a man. Sheril comes across as very likable. But she also comes across as competent. That isn’t to say that Chris isn’t both competent and likable, and is probably the better communicator. But if I were voting for president, I would vote for Sheril. Is it a generational thing? Maybe. I think that there’s something different about women born after about 1970 that’s different…different in the way that they were brought up, maybe. Maybe the narrative changed after the women’s movement – girls didn’t have to choose between “male” and “female” roles.

  18. John the Gnerphk

    Just a quick note – I’ve worked for several likeable, competent women. I’ve worked for more likeable, competent men. And I’ve observed one common thing: These people were competent first and likeable second.

    Those who cared more about doing a good job than about being liked tended to acheive both more readily.

    And, since women tend to be under more pressure to succeed – from themselves if nobody else – they tend to be at an immediate disadvantage in acheiving this balancing act, since they are under pressure to care more about how they are perceived.

    Even those males who simply lack the imagination required to worry about external perception have a comparitive advantage in this area.

    People don’t respect those that seem only to be attempting to please them. This is one reason our society dislikes politicians so much, and it may well be a prime difficulty faced by women in leadership roles.

  19. Hey IanR,
    I would vote for Sheril above me any day. Why do you think I brought her to the blog?

  20. You guys are too much! Thanks IanR. And Chris, you’re the Luke to my Leia. You know I’d vote for you over me hands-down, then hope to be your running mate 😉


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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