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Too Tough To Be Hired or Elected?

Why women suffer from the "Ms. Nice" requirement

Senator Amy Klobuchar was supposed to be “Minnesota Nice.” But when she started running for president, stories began to circulate about how she was really nasty to her staff.

It should have been a one-news-cycle story, but it just would not die.

When Elizabeth Warren rolled out her presidential campaign, the same media narrative emerged. She was too combative, too tough, and, as the New York Times reported in a recent story, “She’s already falling in the polls, and—perhaps most stinging—shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton … How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux—written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”

None of this is new. When Republican Elizabeth Dole, long a darling of the GOP, ran for president in 2000, her media image changed very quickly. Nearly all the past stories about her focused on her competence and on her southern charm. (She was born in North Carolina). Suddenly, Dole morphed into the Wicked Witch of the West. Time noted “If a staff member is lax, the unlucky individual gets the look—set jaw, icy stare. And is frozen out.”

Ambitious women in tech face the same problem as ambitious women in politics. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg says that able women are seen by both sexes as unlikeable: unfeminine, aggressive, and conniving. These perceptions can impede women in the workplace. Sandberg sees this issue as the major force holding women back as they try to rise.

Behavioral scientists have long examined this issue, which persists no matter how much attention is focused on the problem.

Men who are forceful and competent are seen by both sexes as assertive, worthy of promotion, and likable reports NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman. But women who are competent and forceful are seen by both sexes as unlikable, unfeminine, aggressive, conniving, and untrustworthy—what Heilman called “your typical constellation of ‘bitchy characteristics.’” Heilman added that often, such women are seen as “not just unlikable, but downright awful.”

Less able women are seen as more likable, but not very good at their jobs. It’s another lose-lose for women: Be very competent, and you’re seen as a bitch. Be less competent, and you won’t move up—or you’re out the door. It’s different for males: likable, less able men are more apt to be hired than competent women.

In a Columbia Business School experiment, students read the real-life story of a female entrepreneur, describing how her “outgoing personality” and her ability to network with powerful executives had made her a success in the technology world. Half the students in the experiment were assigned to read “Heidi’s” story. The other half got the same story—but the name on the résumé was “Howard.” The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. But Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

When Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers executive Ellen Pao sued her former employer (a well-known venture capital firm) claiming she was unfairly fired, she asked for $16 million in damages. She didn’t get it—perhaps because the firm said she was combative and full of resentment.

No wonder that women in tech are not moving up as fast as they should. A report by McKinsey and Company and LeanIn.org. found that unless change picks up, it will take more than 100 years for men and women to be represented equally in the C-suite. Two-thirds of members of U.S. Fortune 500 boards are men. Few women are influencing product development or business strategy—the two rungs at the top of the industry’s corporate ladder.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which has campaigned to get a woman in the White House, found that women, much more so than men, must be seen favorably to garner votes. It's research found that, in gubernatorial contests, when women opposed each other, the more likable candidate won in nine of 10 contests. But when two men ran against each other, favorability didn’t predict the outcome. The same trope operates in tech.

A 2018 article on the Silicon Valley website ReCode by Rani Molla reports, “The pay disparity between women and men is often framed as a difference in experience. But women actually miss out on pay as they gain experience, according to new data from tech job platform Hired.

“Within the first two years of working in a tech job, women in the U.S. ask for and receive 98 percent of what their male counterparts make in the same job at the same company, according to the report.

“Over time, that disparity grows. On average, women with seven to 10 years of experience, for example, ask for about 90 cents on the dollar and are offered slightly more—93 cents for every dollar a man is offered. Women with 13 to 14 years of experience ask for 94 cents for every dollar and receive just 92 cents.”

One reason for this sad state of affairs may well be that as women move higher, they are asking for more money than those just starting out. And asking for money, especially when women do it, is just not “nice.” Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles notes that when people observe women in salary negotiations, “Money, in particular, seems to be a hot [issue].” She found that both females and males penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation. They did not punish men for the same behavior. “Women are more reticent to negotiate than men, for good reason,” Bowles says.

“But here’s a twist: we love it when women negotiate assertively for others.” They are fulfilling the gender stereotype that women must so be caring that they should put others before themselves. “It’s just when women are negotiating assertively for themselves where we find a backlash.”

Recently, on Recode, founder Kara Swisher talked with Maha Ibrahim, one of three female general partners at the venture capital firm Canaan Partners. Ibrahim said, “In the entrepreneurial pool—this is specific to women—there’s no icon. There’s no Steve Jobs, there’s no Mark Zuckerberg … I’ve been on panels where male investors have said, ‘We feel like women shoot for the moon, not the stars. We feel like women are not as ambitious as men.’” She added, “And they’re using that as an example, ‘Gosh, there is no female Mark Zuckerberg.’”

Zuckerberg famously played hardball in creating Facebook—so much so that he was sued by fellow Harvard classmates who said he stole the idea from them. What would have happened to a woman who was as aggressive as Zuckerberg? Like Ellen Pao, she would have been pushed to the sidelines for violating “proper” female behavior.

Silicon Valley has a special problem with this issue. Many tech firms believe they are simply meritocracies, and that hiring is merely about finding the best person for the job.

As long as tech bosses pine for Ms. Nice—and hire her—women will be destined to a slow climb up the ladder.

The same fate will befall female presidential candidates as long as reporters obsess over how nice they are—or not—while male candidates escape such scrutiny completely.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this situation to change.

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