Speaking Out About Women And Power

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 5:20 pm

Last week Hillary Clinton stepped down from her position as secretary of state amidst speculation about whether she'll consider a 2016 bid for the presidency. For decades Clinton has embodied the conflicted status of women in power, with very public roles as a wife, mother and first lady, two terms in the Senate and four years as secretary of state.

On the one hand, Clinton's career highlights how far women have come. Just 20 years ago, there were only three women in the Senate (versus 20 today) and there had never been a woman secretary of state. On the other hand, a glance at the proportion of women in public positions of power — whether it's Senate seats (20 percent women) or board seats at Fortune 500 companies (16.6 percent women) — reveals that we have a long way to go.

Last month, a symposium at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology considered "when and why women step back from status," focusing on the subtle social pressures that reinforce traditional gender roles and cast women as nurturers rather than leaders. This research sheds light on why women may be less likely to pursue public positions of power and why they face extra challenges when they do.

One set of studies, by professors Melissa Williams at Emory University and my colleague Serena Chen at UC Berkeley, found that women who saw themselves as "leaders" at home were on average less ambitious about career advancement, with no comparable effect for men. In other words, power inside the home seemed to compensate for power outside the home, but only for women. (You can read a summary of this research in a post by Chad Brooks over at the Huffington Post.)

Chen shared some thoughts with me on the findings and their implications. "We should be cautious about using language that invokes power and status when describing women's activities at home," she suggested. For example, "when well-intentioned male partners defer to their wives' clothing choices, or let the kids know that 'mom's the boss' of the household, these seemingly flattering interactions may carry the implication that the woman in question is not the boss outside the home, or lacks expertise in areas other than fashion."

Another speaker at the symposium, Victoria Brescoll, an assistant professor at Yale's School of Management, studied the interplay between power and gender on the Senate floor: she measured the amount of time that male and female members of the Senate spent talking. Is speaking a privilege of power, and if so, do women exercise it?

Brescoll found that there was a fairly strong and positive association for men between speaking time and political power (as quantified by tenure, committee assignments and other metrics): the more powerful the man, the more time he tended to spend speaking. But for women there was a much weaker, and statistically insignificant, association.

To better understand why powerful women didn't spend more time speaking, Brescoll conducted two experiments. In one, men and women were asked to think of themselves as either the most powerful or the least powerful member of a team. Replicating the Senate-floor findings, men in the "powerful" condition reported that they would talk more than men in the "powerless" condition did, with no effect of power on talking for women. Women's reticence was driven mainly by a fear of backlash: they worried that they would be negatively perceived if they acted in stereotypically "powerful" ways, such as dominating discussion.

Brescoll's final experiment revealed that this worry was — unfortunately — warranted.

A new group of men and women was asked to evaluate a hypothetical CEO who was either male or female and described as either offering opinions as much as possible or tending to withhold opinions. Female CEOs who offered their opinions were judged less competent and less suited to leadership than female CEOs who withheld their opinions, with the opposite pattern for males.

Two aspects of this final experiment are worth emphasizing. First, women were judged more harshly for voicing opinions too ardently, but men faced a complementary danger: of being perceived as poor leaders if they didn't voice their opinions. Members of both sexes were penalized for failing to conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

Second, female participants showed these gendered patterns of judgment just as strongly as males. A general lesson from studies of implicit bias in psychology is that women aren't immune from perpetuating the very same judgments and behaviors that can hold them back.

The final two projects presented in the symposium considered the importance of female role models in science and differing assumptions about what motivates men and women; both good topics for future posts!

Hillary Clinton was an unwitting participant in Brescoll's Senate study. Data for the study was collected from C-SPAN footage during her Senate tenure. While Brescoll doesn't reveal individual senators' talking time, it seems from Clinton's subsequent success that she's mastered both the complex political art of knowing what to say and when not to say it.

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.