Too Sweet, Or Too Shrill? The Double Bind for Women.

hidden-brain-imageA couple days ago, the Hidden Brain podcast had a fascinating episode on how sexism affects women in leadership.  You can listen to it HERE.

Here is the transcript from the episode, as provided on the NPR page (emphases mine):

Fewer than 1 in 5 members of Congress are women. At Fortune 500 companies, fewer than 1 in 20 CEOs are women. And if you look at all the presidents of the United States through Barack Obama, what are the odds of having 44 presidents who are all men?

If men and women had an equal shot at the White House, the odds of this happening just by chance are about 1 in 18 trillion.

What explains the dearth of women in top leadership positions? Is it bias, a lack of role models, the old boy’s club? Sure. But it goes even deeper. Research suggests American women are trapped in a paradox that is deeply embedded in our culture.

When Moseley Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, she achieved a powerful first. She was the first female African-American senator. And in her race for office, she assumed that racism would be a more daunting obstacle than gender bias. But she says, that wasn’t the case.

“I think in some regards the gender biases are more profound and more central to our culture than even the racial ones, and that to me was the surprise.”

One moment in particular still stays with her, more than 20 years later.

“There was a cartoon from one of the newspapers in the state that showed me as a puppet, with my campaign manager’s hand up my dress,” she says. “And the idea that I was a puppet of this guy that who was managing my campaign was shocking to me.”

But shortly after Braun won her race, she says she confronted a second trap. One day, she made an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate. But she says, all her colleagues could hear, was a shrill black woman.

Her experience is one that researchers have described as a “double bind” — a set of assumptions that get at our implicit assumptions about men, women and leadership.

“The female gender role is based on the stereotype that women are nice and kind and compassionate,” says social psychologist Alice Eagly. By contrast, she says, “in a leadership role, one is expected to take charge and sometimes at least to demonstrate toughness, make tough decisions, be very assertive in bringing an organization forward, sometimes fire people for cause, etc.”

So what’s a woman to do? Be nice and kind and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require? Or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be one is to be seen as nice, but weak. To be the other is to be seen as competent, but unlikable.

Connie Morella served for 16 years as a Republican congresswoman from Maryland. Like Democrat Braun, she says at times she struggled to be heard.

“In a committee room, when I wasn’t chair of the committee, I would respond to a question or comment on an issue, [and] they’d say, ‘Thank you, Connie, that was great.’ And a little later Congressman Smith would say the same thing, and it was, ‘Oh, Congressman Smith … that was fabulous, let the record show …’ and I’d think, ‘Gee, I just said that.’ ”

How can we tell, with scientific certainty, whether women like Morella and Carol Braun were the victims of bias? When we look at a female leader who appears incompetent or shrill, how do we know if we are seeing reality, or just seeing the world through the lens of our own unconscious biases?

That’s where researchers like Madeline Heilman come in. She’s a psychology professor at New York University who focuses on gender stereotypes and bias, particularly when it comes to leadership. In one study, Heilman asked volunteers to evaluate a high-powered manager joining a company. Sometimes volunteers are told the manager is a man, other times they’re told it’s a woman.

“When the person was presented as a high powered person, who was very ambitious, we found that the person was seen as much more unlikable when it was a woman than when it was a man,” she says.

In these studies, the high-powered male and female manager are described in identical terms, down to the letter. The only difference is that one is said to be a man, and the other is said to be a woman.

Heilman says that the double bind arises because our minds are trying to align our stereotypes about men and women, with our stereotypes about leadership.

“We have conceptions of these jobs and these positions and what is required to do them well, and there’s a lack of fit between how we see women and what these positions require,” she says.

The biases Heilman describes aren’t just held by men. They’re held by both sexes, which explains why many female leaders encounter derision and suspicion from men and women.

“We have very strong feelings about how men and women are, and that leads to this dislike when they go over the line, when they tread where they are not supposed to be.”

The good news, says psychologist Eagly, is that our culture’s views are always changing. And that includes our views on women, men and the meaning of leadership — whether in elected office or the workplace.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carol Moseley Braun was the first African-American U.S. senator. She was in fact the first female African-American senator. An initial version of the podcast episode with the same error has been corrected.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.


Follow The Beautiful Kingdom Warriors on Facebook for daily links regarding gender equality in the Church and culture at large.  Thanks for stopping by and come again!

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4 responses to “Too Sweet, Or Too Shrill? The Double Bind for Women.

  1. Oh I definitely see that. Even more frustrating is when I try to explain the assertive-submissive tightrope I walk as a professional woman to conservative male friends and they just. don’t. get it. They deny that gender bias exists in the same breath that they criticize a woman for being a harpy. I swear they’re good people underneath it all. Just frustratingly, willfully ignorant!

    • Yes! Plus, the leadership stereotypes we have also exclude talented men who are not domineering and forceful. It will be good for all of us when we grt beyond these stereotypes.

  2. Excellent post. Here in the UK we have our second-ever female prime minister. Many people disliked the previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, because of her policies, but the number of times I’ve heard or read criticism based on her *gender* is innumerate. Yet no one notices. It’s fair enough to criticise a politician’s policies, but suspect when people focus on gender. Margaret Thatcher famously even had to take voice lessons to deepen her voice.

    Medicine is a highly skilled area in which women have caught up with men. My sister is a paediatrician. Along the way she has been criticised for being abrupt and lacking warmth, and I have the sneaking suspicion that if a male colleague had behaved in the same way the same behaviour would have been far more likely to be overlooked, or even praised as being decisive or bold. I’m speculating, I know, but male privilege is so deeply ingrained that we just don’t see it.

    Also, true equality goes both ways. The tasks traditionally seen as female always seem to be valued less than those viewed as ‘male’. While it’s good and important to acknowledge and encourage the leadership skills of women, why do we place less value on traditionally female qualities such as organising, encouraging or nurturing?

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