One of the catch-22s of gender relations these days is that women are hemmed by both realistic power structures that do exist, as well as by perceptions of what ‘should’ exist.
Specifically regarding gender stereotypes, many people expect not only that women are more modest in their presentation and interactions, but that they should be more modest.
So what happens when women violate these stereotypes?
That was the question that Professor Victoria Briscoll of Yale University posed in her seminar on “Women and Power: Hard to Earn, Difficult to Signal, and Easy to Lose.” She broke her answer into three parts.
First, women often have to manage people’s impressions of their rise to power. Their intention of seeking power and authority appear inconsistent with people’s perceptions that women should be communal and not dominating. So even female politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Patty Murray, who are essentially in the business of power, often downplay the fact that they are there, insisting that they “never expected to run for office.”
Second, once in power, men and women often communicate differently to continue this impression management. According to a great deal of social psychological research, ‘powerful’ people are often given a license to talk more than people with less power, who signal deference. Moreover, women tend to lead in more democratic, non-hierarchical fashions than men. So in spaces like the US Senate floor, men talk to display power, while women tend to talk to establish and maintain relationships and advocate for communal rather than personal causes. This is often in the effort to avoid backlash.
Finally, women’s power is often more fragile and easily lost than that of men. In the case of expressing anger, women are almost always penalized for this, while angry white men are sometimes rewarded for being assertive. But when women can explain their anger away to an external source, women are rewarded.
So clearly there’s a lot of work for society to do. To get there, do women need to keep on adjusting what they do? How can we get societal expectations to change in the long run?