Approachable Mediocrity

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe.” Not only do successful female leaders tout the value of hard work, but this “recipe” is also a tenet of the enigmatic American Dream. However, this may not actually be the case for highly educated women.

Of course, we have all received this advice time and again. Although women now dominate higher education – at least in number – and female empowerment seems to continue to rise, the American Sociological Review published a study earlier this month which indicates that hard work may be benefiting men more than women. Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, conducted two experiments where she found that high-achieving women were less likely to be called back for a job interview than their male counterparts and moderate-achieving women. Quadlin’s results point to a societal standard that punishes women for being high-achieving in college, viewing their personalities with skepticism while their less-qualified female peers are seen as “sociable and outgoing.”

First exploring whether women’s academic success carried over to the job market, Quadlin submitted 2,106 job applications that manipulated applicants’ GPA, gender, and college major. She found that for men, GPA was largely inconsequential, while for women, moderate performance was surprisingly more successful in scoring interviews. Quadlin also discovered that high-achieving women suffer most in the job hunt when they major in math—high-achieving men in the same field were called back three times as often as the women. She writes, “In other words, when women demonstrate achievement in the precise field where they are expected to be least competent, they may be particularly likely to be penalized in hiring.”

Curious about why these high-achieving women were not receiving calls for interviews, Quadlin surveyed 261 hiring managers, asking them to evaluate fictional resumes based on competence, likeability, and other factors. Once the results were analyzed, it was clear that gendered standards for applicants are the major reason that high-achieving women do not receive due consideration from employers. “Men are more likely to be called back if they are perceived as competent and committed to their jobs—traits that are typically ascribed to the ‘ideal worker,’” Quadlin says. “Women, however, are more likely to be called back if they are perceived as likeable—an assessment that is more or less irrelevant to men’s employment outcomes.”

This female-likeability complex in hiring processes extends beyond disadvantaging women with high academic performance. In a 2000 study from The American Economic Review, Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse found that after some symphony orchestras adopted blind audition methods, which concealed the musicians’ identities from the jury, the proportion of hired female musicians increased by approximately 25 percent. Another study from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard reinforces the gender bias in the workplace. When participants were given equivalent descriptions of men and women who were negotiating for a higher salary, they criticized the women twice as much as the men.

So why do employers want their female employees to be likeable? Gender norms and resulting standards are to blame, but in a world where we claim to empower women and reward hard work, the demanding expectation for qualified women to also be sweet and likeable persists across all fields. It is not just employers who insist on this idealized image. Female politicians and business executives are consistently described by both media and the public alike as “cold” and “unfeminine,” so twisted by their competence and powerful positions that they somehow lose their womanhood.

Despite the regular barrage of negative reactions towards confident, qualified women, a 2015 study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology found that assertive, dominant women were generally compensated better than their less assertive female counterparts. Though this initially seemed like a victory for outspoken women, the most dominant women were still paid less than the least assertive men. This pay gap cannot be attributed to women’s lack of pay negotiation; in fact, researchers from the Cass Business School, the University of Warwick, and the University of Wisconsin discovered in 2016 that not only were women asking for raises as often as men, but men were 25 percent more likely to receive a raise when they asked. Clearly, the issue of these disparities of expectation in both hire and pay are rooted in gender.

Resolving these issues and changing these unequal expectations will be a thorny, slow process, and many argue that instead of trying to amend the system, high-achieving women should simply learn to present themselves as more likeable. It is clear that the gendered structures we live in must adjust to better reward the hard work of women, but while these adjustments are slowly being made, women must overcome these stereotypes and prove that competence and warmth are not mutually exclusive, that confidence and skill come with social abilities, and that it is possible to be both a woman and a leader.

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