Women show gender bias too

Negative stereotypes are sadly self-reinforcing, so what can women do about it?

by John Antonakis
Last Updated: 13 Apr 2017

Although women are now more visible in the upper echelons of consequential power around the world – from Angela Merkel and Theresa May to Cressida Dick - history has shown men generally have it easier when vying for these positions.

The reason is simple: Most people equate ‘leadership’ traits with stereotypical characteristics of men, but if a woman demonstrates stereotypical male characteristics, she will often be seen as violating society’s prescriptions and gender roles. Simply put, people do not like it if women act in stereotypically masculine ways (i.e. being tough and assertive).

What should women leaders do? If they act in a gender-stereotypical way (i.e. being nice, kind, nurturing), they will not emerge as leaders because they do not show the ‘stuff’ of leadership. This ‘damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t’ double bind limits what women can ‘get away’ with in public life. It makes it very hard for women to find a balance between showing exceptional competence and not alienating people while at the same time being warm enough so that they don't look like an ‘Ice Queen’.

It’s not just men 

Looking at this in the context of the U.S. election is particularly interesting because Hillary Clinton only won 54% of the female vote. The fact that so many women voted for Donald Trump over alternative women candidates, despite his blatant misogynism, was a big surprise to many; but not to many social scientists, me included. Clearly there were several other important issues that played into the result, and gender too may have played a role in the final outcome.

In controlled experiments researchers have found that, in general, women don't necessarily give a female leader the benefit of the doubt. Interestingly, both men and women tend to judge male and female leaders in relatively similar ways, depending on the context and the stakes at play.

If I were to ask you to think of an army general and the first image that usually springs to mind – for both men and women - is a man. As such, men will find it easier to become a general of an army than a woman would. And it’s the same thing with a U.S. president; because all previous presidents have been men, the stereotypical characteristics of a president are defined in male-oriented terms, which thus creates a double bind for women candidates to the presidency.


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What’s clear is that women have to jump through higher hoops and show more competence than comparable men for to gain a position of consequential power. It’s also clear that men are given much more leeway than are women; they can show a wider range of behaviours and get away with it. For instance, research shows that if a female (versus a male) shows anger she pays for it and is seen as out of control; Ségolène Royal lost a crucial debate to Nicolas Sarkozy for just that reason.

That Trump didn't do as well as he could have on the popular vote obviously indicates that he paid a price for all the things that he said (though not, crucially, in the Rust Belt states). Yet, he still managed to get away with a lot more than a woman would have. If a woman had said and done the things that Trump had said, she would absolutely have had no chance and would have been punished in a much more consequential way.

Men simply have it easier than women. Recent research even shows that this problem persists in academic institutions that should know better: Women have to show a higher level of research competence to receive an endowed professorship as compared to men.

Hope for the future?

Unfortunately, women have an innate disadvantage in that deep rooted cultural stereotypes tend to be self-perpetuating, as seen in statements like ‘see what happens when you put a woman in charge?’ In other words, stereotypes feed what individuals believe is true, and repeated exposure to a phenomenon or frequency or an event then drives the prototype.

But we also need to remember that there are no consequential differences between men and women when it comes to leadership traits, and that stereotypical beliefs have cultural roots. A few years ago, I heard a joke from a Finnish diplomat about a young Finnish boy and girl, at a time when both the prime minister and president of Finland were women. The boy asked the girl what she wanted to do when she grew up. She replied, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ He said, ‘wow, that's great’. She then asked him the same question whereupon he replied: ‘I want to be the prime minster of Finland.’ She then laughed and laughed saying: ‘That`s impossible because you’re not a girl!’ Go figure.

John Antonakis is a professor at HEC Lausanne, the business school at the University of Lausanne.

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