Sunday, February 10, 2008

competent or likeable, but not both

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today offers a look at women rulers and leaders, and uses psychological research findings about public perceptions of male and female leaders to suggest why female leaders in modern democracies have more trouble with public prejudices than did, say, Queen Elizabeth I. He notes:
...one lesson from this research is that promoting their own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments, that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are....The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.
There's the issue for women who speak in public, be it a meeting or a convention hall: For many, speaking constitutes self-promotion, and that's all the more true the larger your audience gets. And we've already seen that, in negotiations, women accurately sense when their audiences (particularly other women) are likely to receive them negatively, and often choose to silence themselves as a result--not out of poor confidence levels, but from understanding the risks and lack of choices they face with hostile audiences. In our last reader poll, most said "my own fears" were their biggest public speaking barrier, and this column adds more evidence that women's fears about how they'll be received aren't misguided impulses.

The solution, however, doesn't lie in ceding the microphone to others. Kristof includes observations from an MIT economist's studies in India of village councils, one-third of which are required to have female leaders. While the female leaders did a better job, based on objective measures, they were perceived as worse than male leaders when they were first allowed to lead in the 1990s. Subsequent rounds of female leaders drew equal with men in public views, however, and the lead researcher offers this encouragement: "Exposure reduces prejudice." So get out there and start speaking--be it to a small group or a large one.

Read the Kristof column here, and the comments by readers here. Add your comments here--what do you think?