Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t

// 2 November 2007

There is no perfect way for women to act in the workplace, if they wish to get ahead – that is the conclusion Lisa Belkin comes to in this New York Times article on the contradictory research on the issue.

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed “inspiring others” as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was “delegating” that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators.

Call me a cynical feminist, but it obvious why this is the case: we are conditioned to perceive women as worth less than men. All this other stuff about women being bad at inspiring others or delegating or whatever it is, is just a rationalisation of that fact.

Of course, this applies to what to wear to the office as well (the article appeared, weirdly, in the Fasion & Style section of the newspaper):

“Some of what we are learning is directly helpful, and tells women that they are acting in ways they might not even be aware of, and that is harming them and they can change,” said Peter Glick, a psychology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

He is the author of one such study, in which he showed respondents a video of a woman wearing a sexy low-cut blouse with a tight skirt or a skirt and blouse that were conservatively cut. The woman recited the same lines in both, and the viewer was either told she was a secretary or an executive. Being more provocatively dressed had no effect on the perceived competence of the secretary, but it lowered the perceived competence of the executive dramatically.

The problem, of course, is that wearing a conservative suit is not going to help. The long list of research studies quoted in the article demonstrates that there is no right way to act for women to get ahead. Because it is being a woman that is causing the problem, not the outfit they are wearing or their attitude or personality.

Can I also just say, I’m really not liking this professor Glick:

Professor Glick has some upcoming projects, too. One looks at whether women do better in sales if they show more cleavage. A second will look at the flip side of gender stereotypes at work: hostility toward men.

Photo by plasticdollhouse, shared under a Creative Commons license

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