If Martin Luther King, Jr. were a “woman in a meeting,” jokes the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, she’d hedge her “I have a dream” speech with rhetoric like, “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”
Petri is satirizing the all-too-real tradeoff women make daily between sounding smart, confident, and assertive and appearing warm and likeable. She writes in response to the essay Jennifer Lawrence recently wrote for Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny.
In her essay, Lawrence attributes not negotiating for more money for her role in “American Hustle” — she and costar Amy Adams were only offered 7% of proceeds from the film, while male actors Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper were offered 9% — to her fear that she might appear “difficult” or “spoiled.”
“At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the internet and realised every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled,'” she writes.
“I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue,” Lawrence says. “Are we socially conditioned to behave this way? … Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?”
The answer to her question, sadly, is a resounding yes. And they have every reason to.
According to research conducted by NYU psychology professor Madeline Heilman, women’s career advancements are often impeded by two kinds of gender stereotypes:
- Descriptive stereotypes attribute certain characteristics to women, like “caring,” “warm,” “modest,” and “emotional.” This creates problems, Heilman says, when there’s a disconnect between what women are perceived to be like and what attributes are necessary to successfully perform in male gender-typed roles.
- Prescriptive gender stereotypes designate what women and men should be like. With this kind of stereotyping, women are disapproved of and punished socially when they directly or seemingly violate the prescribed ways they should act.
Numerous studies have shown the disturbing role prescriptive gender stereotypes play in the workplace.
Another study conducted by Heilman showed that successful women working in “male domains” are penalised when they are perceived to be less nurturing or sensitive, since they violate gender-stereotypical prescriptions.
Women who violate prescriptions of modesty by promoting themselves at work were found to be less hireable in a Rutgers University study, and a study conducted by Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles showed women were penalised by evaluators more often than men for initiating negotiations, thus violating the prescription that women be passive.
After analysing more than 248 performance reviews last year, Kieran Snyder wrote in Fortune, “negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”
Women’s reviews included gems like, “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone,” and, “You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R — ‘s contributions from the beginning.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the more a woman climbs the career ladder, the more she clams up, write Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, “The Confidence Code.”
“The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol gets,” Kay and Shipman write. “All too often the very fear of this kind of abuse is enough to make women pull too far back and become overly deferential.”
We continue to see this kind of gender bias play out in today’s headlines.
As The Verge’s Nitasha Tiku noted about the Ellen Pao trial, feedback given to Pao at Kleiner Perkins included criticism that she was too negative, too resentful, and too concerned with being “personally credited for the work she did.”
Feedback given to Wen Hsieh, who Pao hired and trained to share her chief of staff duties at the time, included notes that Hsieh should stop being “too optimistic,” that he’s “spread too thin,” and that he gets “undue credit” for successes that are not his.
“Pao’s territoriality makes sense if her male coworker is automatically handed more credit than he deserves,” Tiku wrote. Pao had to choose between standing up for her work and being chastised for the immodesty of it all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard,” Lawrence says. “It’s just heard.”
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