Leadership and The Mother Goose Factor

10 years ago

Mother Goose

One of the sidebar benefits of having Hillary Clinton performing so well in the democratic polls is that its forcing the pundits to examine what it would really be like to have a woman leading this country.

As they are taking that closer look what they are finding is something women have known for a long time --- what works for the gander does not work for the goose.

The findings: If you are a woman in a leadership position you better exhibit the best of Mother Goose.

Writing about this phenomenon in The Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam's article, Myth of the Iron Lady  cites research conducted by New York University organizational psychologist Madeline Heilman where she asked a group of volunteers to evaluate two potential bosses. They had similar qualifications. The biggest differentiator were their names. One was James, the other was Andrea.

In the experiment, half the the volunteers thought they were hearing about an executive named James while the other half heard exactly the same description for Andrea.

The volunteers were asked two simple questions: to decide which leader seemed less likable, and whether they would prefer James or Andrea as a boss. Nearly three-quarters of the volunteers said they thought Andrea was less likable than James. More than four-fifths chose James as a boss. Women showed the same bias as men: Andrea seemed less likable merely because she was a female leader.

Heilman's finding, published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, replicates the conclusions of other studies. But in a twist that may well have a bearing on Clinton's campaign, Heilman proved that the reason people see a highly competent woman as less likable than a man with precisely the same qualifications is that such women are automatically perceived to have lost their feminine, caring side.

When Heilman added elements to her descriptions that showed James and Andrea were especially warm and caring people, the psychological bias disappeared entirely. Equal numbers of volunteers now said they would be happy to have either Andrea or James be their leader.

I found this study extremely comforting. What it is say is that women in leadership positions shouldn't try to be mini-males. Instead we should be ourselves: decisive,firm and caring at the same time. What the study says to me is that competent, smart, strategic women who have felt they had to hide their nurturing side in order to succeed were actually sabotaging themselves. When we show up as ourselves, success will follow.Now that's a concept!

The article had a huge impact on Ashley at Running Start,

Attila the Hen, the Old Witch, the Iron Frau. No, these are not fairytale characters. These are actual nicknames of some of the first female leaders around the world.[...]Reading this article made me question my own perceptions about women leaders. While I am all for “girl power”, I realized I have made statements about women leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, in the past that invoke these stereotypes.

I remember losing my cool when I had learned that Hillary Clinton had been elected Senator. I thought to myself. “what’s the next step in her quest for world domination, the Presidency?” I also remember my college professor made a joke when my classmates and I were taking our Recent U.S. History final last semester. He said, “whoever comes up with the best nickname for Hillary Clinton will get extra credit. Write it on the last page of your blue books.”

It gave us a good laugh and some of us even came up with some witty nicknames (let your imagination run wild) even though we knew we would not be getting the extra credit. I now ask myself “how can I be for girl power yet uphold society’s stereotypes of women?” “I can’t,” I answered myself.

So the next time I see Hillary on TV campaigning for the Presidency, I will think to myself “ I am sure she is a friendly woman; she just appears so cold on TV because she has to prove to the American people that she’s not incompetent and she cannot have her male running mates thinking she is weak. She’s not trying to take over the world. She’s trying to make history. Girl Power!”

Vedantam's article also caught the attention of Catherine Price at Salon.com,

It's not news to point out that many people refer to female leaders as "mannish" because they feel uncomfortable with the idea of women having power to begin with. But that's not Vedantam's only point. Rather, he suggests that it might be more a result of a psychological zero-sum game. After pointing out that in our culture, women are considered the "nicer sex," that men are considered more aggressive, and that we tend to associate leadership with stereotypically masculine characteristics, he goes on to suggest the following: "Experiments show that women vying for leadership roles are automatically assigned two labels. The first is to be seen as nice and warm, but incompetent; the second is to be seen as competent but unpleasant. Women stuck with Label A cannot be leaders, because the stereotype of leadership is incompatible with incompetence. Women who do become leaders get stuck with Label B, because if leadership is unconsciously associated with manliness, cognitive consistency requires that female leaders be stripped of the caring qualities normally associated with women."

So, in other words, a woman can't be thought of as "womanly" if she wants to be perceived as a leader, because female characteristics are, unfortunately, still often associated in people's minds with incompetence. Therefore, if a woman succeeds at being a leader, she must also be accused of being mannish -- otherwise, her success just doesn't make sense.

Vedantam was not the only journalist thinking about women and leadership this week. Carolyn Hymowitz has a provocative piece, Looking at Clinton, Seeing Themselves in the Wall Street Journal about the attitude of Executive Women to Hillary Clinton.

Her determination to win the White House is also prompting many women in business to reflect on their career goals and what price they're willing to pay to achieve them.[...] "There's still a narrower band of acceptable behavior for women than men," Ms. Peterson says. "The minute Hillary steps out of line, everyone jumps all over her," she adds. Missteps can include just laughing too loudly or showing a bit of cleavage.

"It makes my blood boil," says DeeDee Towery, president and CEO of ProActive Business Solutions, an Oakland, Calif., IT company. She says she gets so angry when she hears Mrs. Clinton attacked about her behavior that she avoids listening to the news. "It reminds me of being told by my father when I was growing up that business was for men and women belonged at home," says Ms. Towery, who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton.

Catalyst, the women's research organization, has found that women face "an impossible double bind" when they seek leadership jobs. When they act in stereotypical feminine ways -- showing "caring and concern for others" -- they're judged less competent, a recent survey of more than 1,200 female executives found. Yet, if they're "assertive," they're judged in performance reviews as "too tough."

In addition, the study found that women have to prove over and over again that they're competent. And they rarely are perceived as both competent and likable. "We're watching this double-bind play out before our eyes on the campaign trail," says Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst.

So I will be searching for the new photo ops showing Hillary's warm caring side. She won't just be kissing the babies like all those other politicians, she'll be feeding them, burping them, and laughing that knowing laugh that the sisterhood shares when a young un spits up all over her strategically chosen handsome pants suit. Afterall, nothing shows a woman's nurturing side then some spit up on her $2000 pant suit.

Image Credit: From Ontario's archives. Mother Goose Float,Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, Toronto,1966

Elana blogs about business culture at FunnyBusiness

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