The Double Bind

December 22, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

“Doing what men do, as well as they do it, does not seem to be enough; women must

additionally be able to manage the delicate balance of being both competent and communal.”

— Madeline Heilman and Tyler Okimoto

People tend to view women in “masculine” fields — such as most science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields — as either competent or likable but generally not both, according to Madeline Heilman, an organizational psychologist at New York University. Heilman and her colleagues found that when success in a “male gender-typed” job was ambiguous, a woman was rated as less competent than an identically described man, although she was rated as equally likable. When individuals working in this type of job were clearly successful, however, women and men were rated as equally competent, but women were rated as less likable and more interpersonally hostile (i.e., cold, pushy, conniving). This was not found to be true in fields that were “female-type” or gender-neutral.

Of course, both competence and likability often matter in terms of professional advancement. In a follow-up study, Heilman and Tyler Okimoto found that successful women in “masculine” occupations are less likely to be disliked if they are seen as possessing communal traits such as being understanding, caring, and concerned about others. Heilman warns not to overinterpret this finding, however, and cautions that the bigger obstacle for most women in male-type work environments is being perceived as competent in the first place. If women emphasize their communal traits when it’s not absolutely clear that they’re competent, it might only feed into the notion that they’re incompetent.

Heilman points out that whereas there are many things that might lead an individual to be disliked in the workplace, including obnoxious behavior, arrogance, stubbornness, and pettiness, it is only women, not men, for whom a unique propensity toward dislike is created by success in a nontraditional work situation. This suggests that success can create an additional impediment to women’s upward mobility in male-dominated fields even when they have done all the right things to move ahead in their careers.

This post wraps up AAUW’s partnership with Nature Publishing Group’s Women in Science Forum to highlight findings from Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  It’s a terrific forum, and I hope many regular AAUW Dialog readers will read and contribute to it in the future.

By:   |   December 22, 2011

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