So, The Fix reached out to Mandy O'Neill to help us pick Obama's claim apart.
O'Neill is an associate professor of management in the George Mason University School of Business and senior scientist at George Mason's Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She has a doctorate in organizational behavior from Stanford University, where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. She's spent decades researching organizational culture, emotions in the workplace and career development. O'Neill's research has been published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, the Academy of Management Journal, Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, and the Harvard Business Review.
What follows is a Q&A conducted via email, edited only for clarity and length.
THE FIX: Let's start with a big one: the concept that sexism shapes our thinking. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that most adults — 75 percent — regard men and women as equally capable leaders. So there are people who are going to be fundamentally dubious that women and men face different hurdles in becoming leaders. What do these people need to know?
Women who are seen as competent — but [who] are not also perceived as warm — are [described as] more unlikable than competent men who are not particularly warm.
What makes people seem "warm?" For this, we can turn to Susan Fiske and her collaborators Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, and others, who find that "warmth" includes friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and morality. In contrast, traits that signal "competence" include qualities such as ability, intelligence, skill, creativity and effectiveness.
In theory, it’s more important for leaders (men and women) to be competent above all else, but — in the case of women — studies show society penalizes them more for not being warm, too.
THE FIX: What do you make of President Obama's comments about the reason that the election is likely to be close?
O'NEILL: It is well-known and well-documented that women have a narrower band of acceptable behavior in leadership roles, particularly ones that are usually occupied by men. The finding is so well-supported in the literature and has been replicated across so many different settings that it’s hard to publish any more findings making the point.
One of my favorite examples comes from Frank Flynn, a professor at my alma mater, Stanford Graduate School of Business, who — as a classroom exercise — changed the name of a famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Heidi Roizen, to “Howard Roizen” for some MBA organizational behavior students, while leaving all other information in the case the same.
When Frank measured students' reaction, he discovered that more students reported they would enjoy working with “Howard” than “Heidi,” particularly if they perceived Heidi’s behaviors to be “aggressive.”
The exact same behaviors (literally — the case was exactly the same except for the main character’s first name) were seen as less “humble” and more “power-hungry” and “self-promoting” when they came from a female main character.
THE FIX: Okay. Have there been specific moments in this election where it seemed to you that gender-related expectations played a role in the way that each of the major party candidate's actions or statements were interpreted or understood?
O'NEILL: A very recent example is Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment last week (referring to Trump supporters).
What makes this issue a gender story is that Clinton took a lot of heat for that one comment while Trump says countless contemptuous comments and receives much less criticism from mainstream media and the American public.
THE FIX: People who follow politics closely have very likely heard that men running against women have to take particular care not to appear as if they are bullying women in competitive settings such as political debates. But, I wonder if there are ways in which men who find themselves in competition with women for leadership roles are able to use what our society expects of women — warmth — to their advantage?
O'NEILL: Absolutely. Any political strategist who has taken a social psychology class in the past 20 years would know that portraying a woman leader as cold and/or unlikable is a subtle strategy that plays well into our cultural stereotypes about women leaders.
The coverage of Hillary Clinton’s State Department private email server controversy is one that comes to mind in this year’s general election. Media coverage, rivals’ rhetoric, and Clinton’s own media responses propagate an image of someone who is the opposite of "warm," particularly when it comes to defending herself in this situation.
This is particularly problematic for a woman who by all accounts is naturally more reserved and private.
THE FIX: Well, are there ways in which women can modify their behavior to address the unique expectations they face when trying to become or remain a leader without capitulating totally to role that sexism continues to play in public life?
O'NEILL: Knowledge is power — it’s important to be aware of the content of cultural stereotypes when considering how to shape one’s own professional image.
Returning to the research on stereotype content, almost every group in society (e.g., homeless people, the elderly, working mothers, Europeans) has a stereotype associated with them based on how “warm” and how “competent” people think they are.
Is it fair that (in Europe) the Spanish are seen as more competent than the Portuguese, even though they are very close neighbors and their chorizo is nearly identical? Probably not. I was sitting in an academic conference in which the audience (including me) was 50 percent working mothers when Amy Cuddy presented a graph showing that working mothers are seen as warmer but less competent than their workplace counterparts. [But,] I think it’s important for people to be aware of stereotypes as a first step to challenging them.
I recommend humor as a helpful strategy. I spent a lot of time researching “masculine” occupational cultures such as firefighters and discovered that joviality is a common strategy used by a lot of men to address tough issues when being serious might come across as too direct or would elicit a lot of negative emotions.
Women who want to appear competent walk a fine line if they address difficult topics (think: presidential election topics!) that, if handled poorly, risk making them look “harsh” or cold. This is just a hypothesis at this point but I can imagine that effective use of humor might be a way for women to appear both warm and competent at the same time. [Humor] allows for certain things to be said without eliciting the well-known “backlash” against competent women.