"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, March 18, 2013

Are Successful Women Unlikeable?

Eleanor Barkhorn, writing in The Atlantic (3.18.13) wonders whether successful women are perceived as less likeable than men and concludes that they are – maybe. In an experiment reported in Human Relations in 2011, respondents were asked whether they would prefer to work for a man or a woman, and over 70 percent said a man.  However respondents who had female managers reported no difference in preference than those who had male bosses.

We are left, then, with only anecdotal evidence:

It feels true. The ruthless, friendless lady-in-charge is a tired trope in pop culture and politics: c.f. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and Tracy Flick in Election, or President Obama's infamous "You're likable enough, Hillary" line from the 2008 primary.

Sheryl Sandberg in her popular book Lean In recounted her own personal observations during her rise to the top and came up with the same conclusion:

"As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and wome

Poor Hilary Clinton got tarred and feathered by the conservative press who conflated what they saw as her take-no-prisoners style with her liberal, socialist agenda.  I don’t remember hearing any cries of harridan, vixen, virago, or succubus when Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State. Her anti-Communist credentials stood her in good stead with the Right, and her testy exchanges in the UN with both allies and enemies were applauded.  Hilary is branded as the castrating female, then, because she worked for Barack Obama, a president much more hated than Bill Clinton ever was. However, Hilary’s approval ratings when she left office were even higher than Obama’s.

Barkhorn dips into social psychology for reasons why we might fall into the gender trap, but suggests that we don’t stay caught long:

There's a precedent for this, of course. Humans tend to be opposed to changes in the status quo until they are forced, through experience, to see that change isn't such a big deal. Marriage equality advocates have learned this lesson well. Before last fall's string of ballot victories, pro-gay marriage groups ran ads depicting happy, committed gay couples and testimonies from "straight, respected people from unexpected corners of the community, like a firefighter in Maine," as the New York Times put it.

I am old enough to remember the day when there were only male announcers on the radio; and when the first female voices were heard, they sounded fluty, screechy, and piped compared to the rich, deep baritones of male announcers.  The men’s voices alone gave importance and gravitas to the news; and one paid more attention to their endorsements.  Women, on the other hand, sounded flighty and chirpy.  Of course over the years we got used to women’s voices and now pay just as much attention to Christiane Amanpour as they do to Anderson Cooper. 

The same is true for women doctors.  Although most people easily accepted a female pediatrician, a job which wasn’t really that different than being a parent; most men were shocked when the oncologist turned out to have tits.  Some retreated into an all-male refuge, and others who had no choice, just grinned and bore it until their cancer went into remission and they couldn’t thank the doctor enough. Since the number of female medical school students now exceeds that of men, I am more surprised to see a male doctor come out to the waiting room to greet me than a woman.

At the same time, it is still hard to completely expunge the image of the shrewish, intemperate woman from our minds.  The image of Kate in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew comes immediately to mind; or that of Constance, the persistent, demanding, shrill, and indomitable mother of Arthur in King John. Who can forget Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  She is the ur-shrew and her savage and brutal emasculating of her husband George still gives men the willies.  Of course it turns out that George is the real master of the marriage and Martha is a real sweetie who has suffered her whole life from frustration and illusion but is really a good person; but the iconic image of the cutting, slicing, dismembering Martha will always be the first one recalled.

Shakespeare’s women were all strong, outspoken, forthright, and confident.  Whether they were villains like Tamora, Volumnia, Dionyza, or, Lady Macbeth; or heroines like Margaret, the wife of the weak Henry VI, who goes to battle for him; or Joan of Arc, brilliantly fighting the English; or comedians like Beatrice and Rosalind, they all had their shrill and unattractive moments.  These women had to be assertive, manipulative, and domineering because they lived in a male-dominated world far more restrictive than ours today.  Shakespeare understood this and created female characters in many ways stronger and more heroic than the men.

So, the image of the importuning, demanding female was a good one – at least for times past; and it is not surprising that it still remains.  Once there is more complete parity between men and women in politics, industry, and business, the old images and stereotypes will quickly disappear.

There is another aspect to this uppity woman syndrome.  Men are used to clubbiness and feel more comfortable with a male boss with whom they can banter, talk sports, and joke around like they do in the locker room.  To be sure, more distance is maintained in the office than at the gym, but an easy familiarity is presumed, if not borne out in fact.  I have had some male bosses who were complete pricks, and any familiarity was off limits; and I have had female supervisors who were happy to share my interests in cooking, children, movies, and Shakespeare.  While I don’t think I would care that much whether I had a male or female boss, there is too much residual imagery for me to ignore.  I couldn’t help thinking that one female boss’ vindictive attacks came from a deep feminist well of insecurity – she was more pissed at my challenges to her ideas than a man would have been because I was perceived as contesting her position as a woman, not just a supervisor.

My young female colleagues in recent job were just as critical of the domineering woman who was our boss as the men; but they chose different characterizations of her, and their criticisms showed as much traditional behavior as that of the boss.  They were catty in their comments, picking more on her tone and personal relationships.  She should have been more a part of their sisterhood, not always calling them on the carpet. The men’s blood pressure rose because she was pushing them around, forcing them into their places, and humiliating them.  In other words for both men and women there were enough residual stereotypes to go around.

Ambitious women, particularly in the early days of gender equality when professional and managerial jobs were opening up, necessarily used men as their examples.  Men have always been notoriously aggressive, propelled by the same killer instinct that their ancestors had on the veldt or battlefield.  We are less concerned with feelings, we are told, than imposing our will.  We don’t read others well, don’t empathize, don’t do well in collaborative groups. We like to push people around and get our way.  So, the first women ascending the ladder to the top felt they had to mimic this outsized gladiatorial reputation.  “Fuck ‘em” was the war cry of the Amazonian legions storming male bastions and ramparts.  “Kill, kill, kill”; and disembowel while you’re at it, show your enemies you mean business.

After many decades of corporate responsibility women have realized that they don’t have to be men in dresses; and can trust their feminine nature.  No one expects male and female bosses to act or respond the same, and the office happily is becoming more a mirror of real life where sexual politics, relationships, and intercourse are normal dynamics.

Some women never have to go through these paroxysms of bloodletting to get to the top.  They simply have a commanding presence, a confidence, and a humanity that all men and women respect.  Florence Mitchell was a big, imposing black woman, over 6 ft. tall, who ran the summer program at St. Christopher’s School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a home/school for potentially delinquent children from New York City who had been referred by the Juvenile Court system.  She was my first boss, my best boss, and a woman I will never forget.  She controlled these unschooled, ill-disciplined, and potentially dangerous children with authority, respect, and love.  She treated us, the do-good white counselors, with affection, concern, and education.  She knew how different the children of St. Chris’ were to us, how different the black ‘Cottage Parents’, and how different she herself must have seemed.  She was never unreasonably demanding of us, never deferential, and always respectful.  She ran the program efficiently and with great competence.  For every one of the children at the school and every one of us counselors, Mrs. Mitchell was our hero.

The point is, most women need to be cut some slack as they go through the grinder of the corporate and political world.  They may still act like Kate or Tamora, may still put on the jockstrap in the morning, but eventually they will sort all this out and achieve a personal and social stasis. We men will get over it soon. I still get more pissed when a female boss snaps at me than a man; but then again I am at the end of my career, flexible enough I hope to adapt but certain that I am still a Shakespearean at heart.  I am sure my son has none of these problems.

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