By Cathy Tinsley
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Last month it became increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton may no longer be within reach of the Democratic presidential nomination. While it is uncertain when Clinton's historic candidacy will actually end, many in the media and in political circles are debating the role sexism played in her defeat.
How did the once-inevitable candidate, who was destined to be America's first female president, lose this nomination battle? Was it her past? Was it her husband? Or is America just not ready for a female president?
Although it's difficult to draw definitive conclusions, behavior and attitudes in the corporate sphere shed some light on the answers to these questions. Unfortunately, the picture suggests we still have work to do.
In a series of studies involving hundreds of participants since 2005, my colleagues and I have found systematic social and financial backlash against even mildly assertive female executives. In one study, for example, people judged the behavior of a hypothetical human resources manager (alternately male or female) negotiating for a refund on unused hotel space. Female managers were judged as significantly more offensive, and less likely to receive any refund, than male managers, even though all managers engaged in exactly the same behavior. In later studies in which human resources managers asked for a refund, displaying mildly assertive behavior, the behavior was routinely judged appropriate when displayed by a man but offensive when displayed by a woman.
In another set of experiments, a finance director (again, alternately a man or a woman) had to choose between attending to a work crisis (an information technology system crash) or a family emergency (a sick child). When the finance director was female and chose to stay at work, she was seen as competent but unlikable. When the female finance director went home, she was rated as incompetent but likable. Yet the choices male finance directors made did not matter -- the men were always judged to be fairly likable and competent.
The bottom line, again, is that the same male and female behaviors evoke different judgments, with women all too often being forced to choose between being viewed as likable or competent.
Although I think, and hope, that we are more or less past the time when women are denied opportunities in politics, sports or business, the results of these studies do not suggest an end to discriminatory attitudes. Americans still appear to perceive and evaluate men and women differently even when they engage in the same behavior.
Two other lessons stood out. First, the backlash against women appears to be unconscious. When confronted with the results of these studies, participants were very surprised by their reactions. They appeared to have no idea that they subscribed to these gender stereotypes about appropriate behavior or that they judged women more harshly.
Second, women were as willing to criticize the female executives as men were. This is not a gender war; women are not fighting men. They are fighting our culture, our prescribed set of norms that constrain their behavior into a rigid set of "appropriate" categories. Although we may be able to recall vivid examples of minorities who judge their own group harshly, women are perhaps the only "low status" group whose members systematically and every bit as harshly show prejudice toward fellow members.
As we close the book on Hillary Clinton's campaign and what was to be the first female presidency, we are forced to reassess. Are we ready yet?
The writer, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, is executive director of the Georgetown Women's Leadership Initiative.