During the third presidential debate, as Hillary Clinton sardonically responded to a question about Social Security, Donald Trump muttered under his breath that she was a “nasty woman.” It wasn’t long before "#NastyWoman” started trending on Twitter, and soon Amazon was selling “Nasty Woman” themed mugs and t-shirts, including one proclaiming “Make America Nasty Again” (a play on Trump’s “Make America Great Again”).
As offensive as many found Trump's remark to be, an article published earlier in 2016 by the University of Richmond’s Crystal Hoyt and the University of Edinburgh’s Susan Murphy shows why a taunt like Trump's might actually inspire more women to seek positions of leadership.
The underlying theory behind the work is that of stereotype threat—the feeling “in the air” (i.e. not made explicit) that you are “being evaluated through the lens of a negative stereotype” (p. 388). People who are made to feel stigmatized by something in a situation that reminds them of their status as a target of that stereotype will under-perform on a task linked to that stereotype. For example, women may not perform as well on a stereotypically “masculine” task such as a math test if their gender is made relevant to them, as opposed to a testing situation in which gender is never brought into the situation. Even asking people to indicate their gender on a survey or questionnaire is enough to trigger this internal self-deprecatory process. There are a variety of mechanisms thought to be at play in stereotype threat-related performance, ranging from a shifting of attentional focus away from the task to the mental energy required to stifle the negative emotions that stereotypes can elicit.
Stereotype threat has been studied in people who are targets of a variety of stigmas including race, age, and gender, and on a variety of stereotype-relevant tasks. Thus, its existence is well-established: Hoyt and Murphy call it “one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology” (p. 388). For women in leadership, stereotype threat relates to the “implicit theory” that many people hold about leadership. The two qualities of a leader, according to this inner bias, are being Caucasian and being masculine. The female gender stereotype doesn’t match this image, leading people to experience a sense of lack of fit: “[T]he qualities used to describe men are similar to those used to describe effective leaders, resulting in men being viewed as a better ‘fit’ with the leader role than women" (p. 388).
As women incorporate and internalize these stereotyped views—that they lack the qualities of an effective leader—they become less likely to see themselves as potential leaders in their respective occupations. Women feel discouraged and don't pursue these positions, causing them to disengage from the leadership track, and maybe even from their career or profession.
Stereotype threat develops in people when they’re exposed to an individual or environment in which there is someone or something directly communicating their inferiority (such as a sexist boss), or even when they are asked to perform an activity in which they’re subtly cued about their own inferiority. Those cues can include asking a research participant to indicate his or her gender prior to completing a laboratory task relevant to the stereotype (such as women being poorer at math). Being in the minority or being part of a group led by a man, and being made to feel that she cannot hold such a position, can also trigger a stereotype threat response.
You might think that exposure to the insulting comment that someone is a "nasty woman" would be just the kind of experience that would drive a potential female leader away from a competition with a man. That is more than a stereotype threat—it is an outright articulation of a stereotype. The desire to escape the situation is what Hoyt and Murphy call a vulnerability response: Not only do you try to remove yourself from such a contest, but you become paralyzed in your ability to respond. Another possibility, equally problematic, is to de-identify with the stigmatized group so that you reject your feminine identity. This “identity separation” can lead to lower feelings of well-being because you can’t completely not be a female.
There’s a third possibility, though, to being exposed to an outright sexist comment, and it's what Hoyt and Murphy call reactance: You go out of your way to show that the stereotype doesn’t fit you. The downside to this is that you may reinforce the perception you’re a nasty woman, leading people to reject you because you don’t fit a socially-accepted pattern of feminine behavior. In research reported by Hoyt and Murphy, women at the bargaining table with men who were blatantly (but not implicitly) sexist outperformed their male counterparts.
There’s something about an outright sexist that engages a woman’s competitive spirit. It might be that a woman is particularly resilient because she sees herself as a leader, feels that she can use power to her advantage, and has avoided the mindset that women can’t be leaders. It’s not that it’s particularly advisable to insult women into asserting their leadership abilities, but the existence of the reactance effect means that when this happens, women won’t necessarily be subdued into becoming any less “nasty.”
Of course, the phrase "nasty woman" taps into an underlying theme similar to that of “resting bitch face,” in that women who show the same behavior as men, such as looking serious, are regarded by other people as failing to meet standards of feminine “niceness.” The use of such terms reinforces the proscription against women acting assertively or in “manly” ways. The moral of the story is not that it’s good to use negative portrayals of women as a call to arms, but that there are ways to fight off the deleterious effects on you if you’re exposed to such treatment.
Ultimately, Hoyt and Murphy believe that changes in women’s self-identification as leaders will come about as female role models present themselves in a way that allows others to see themselves in those positions. Just having one woman at the top won’t do it, especially if that woman is someone whose achievements seem extraordinary and unattainable by everyone else. Further, having constant reminders of women’s lack of strength and leadership ability will continue to communicate messages that reinforce stereotype threat. And yet even if those messages are present, women can be taught ways to buffer themselves against them and remain steadfast in their beliefs that they can compete successfully against men.
Fulfillment for all of us, regardless of gender, race, age, social class, and any other potential identifiers means that we occasionally have to fend off direct or indirect messages that cause us to question our identity. If so, perhaps we can all be a bit nicer—even as we adopt roles that allow us to achieve our ambitions.
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Hoyt, C. L., and Murphy, S. E. (2016). Managing to clear the air: Stereotype threat, women, and leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 387-399. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2015.11.002
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016