Despite making major strides toward gender equality, gender stereotype violations are still taboo. Women who display traits inconsistent with feminine gender role prescriptions are at risk for social and economic backlash, “penalties” for behaving out of social bounds. This week’s WAPPP seminar featured Laurie Rudman, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, as she presented studies on backlash to women’s leadership, how race affects backlash, and how the psychology of backlash affected the 2016 presidential election.
The risk of backlash creates a double bind for women leaders. In order to prove their competence, aspiring leaders can show agency, ambition, or assertiveness, all traits associated with stereotypical leaders who have historically been men. This strategy is effective for demonstrating fitness for a leadership role, but when women do it they face social disapproval for transgressing feminine gender roles: women therefore have to jump over two key hurdles to get to leadership positions.
Much of the psychological research on backlash uses the example of job applicants: study participants are exposed to male and female job applicants who are either agentic (self-promoting, confident, assertive) or communal (modest, oriented toward others). Only the gender of the applicant is varied: all communal applicants and all agentic applicants use the same script. Respondents are asked to rate these applicants on their competence, likability, and hireability. Professor Rudman presented a mini-meta analysis of eight of her backlash studies that follow this same paradigm.
When comparing male and female communal applicants, respondents rate them as equally likeable. However, they tend to rate male communal applicants as more competent and therefore more hirable than women. Interestingly, agentic women tend to be rated slightly more competent than agentic men. However, agentic women are rated as far less likeable than agentic men, and therefore are not hired. This paradigm, according to Professor Rudman, perfectly illustrates the double bind: when women exhibit stereotypically “female” traits, they are viewed as incompetent; take on traditionally “male” traits that are associated with leadership, and they are unlikable and unhirable.
This paradigm of backlash and double-bind may help us understand the result of the 2016 presidential election. According to Professor Rudman, ambitious and competent women provoke backlash because they threaten the legitimacy of patriarchy. As more women are seen performing at the highest levels, it becomes less tenable for society to grant men preferential access to power and privilege. Backlash, therefore, functions to keep women out of the highest levels of leadership, render them invisible, and support patriarchy. The vitriol leveled toward Hillary Clinton throughout her career perfectly encapsulates the backlash effect.
What motivates this level of animosity? Men and women who defend traditional gender roles and power differentials are more likely to engage in backlash against agentic female leaders. However, this leaves a vital question: What is it about patriarchy that people deem worthy of defense? Professor Rudman suggested a few possible sources of support. Defenders of patriarchy may exhibit social dominance orientation (SDO), a sense that hierarchies are a good thing and that some groups deserve to be at the top, and others at the bottom. Alternatively, it could be gender essentialism, the belief that biological differences between men and women imply hierarchy. Finally, Professor Rudman suggested social Darwinism. Adherents of social Darwinism believe that humans are governed by survival of the fittest and that social hierarchies justify ruthlessness to achieve success. Social Darwinism has been used to support white supremacy, colonialism, and eugenics, and anthropologists have been quick to note that humans are driven far more by culture than by genes. Still, social Darwinism lives on in the collective consciousness, particularly in the literature on business ethics, but has rarely been studied in psychology.
With these possibilities in mind, Professor Rudman conducted a study of 433 American adults, asking whether they had preferred Trump or Clinton in the 2016 election. The results showed 60% favoring Clinton to 40% Trump, driven mostly by women’s votes. After adjusting for demographic factors, political identification and support for patriarchy were the only variables that predicted favoring Trump over Clinton. This confirms what we already know – people who support patriarchy reject female leaders – but it doesn’t explain why. Professor Rudman separately regressed defending patriarchy on SDO, gender essentialism, and social Darwinism and found that support for social Darwinism contributes about twice as much variance to defending patriarchy (16%) as SDO (8%) and gender essentialism (7%). This result replicated directly in a study of 387 Rutgers undergraduates: social Darwinism predicts defending patriarchy, which predicts favoring Trump over Clinton.
Professor Rudman and her colleagues delved further into gender essentialism, working with a scenario that centers reproductive biology in a study on backlash. Study participants received a paragraph about Susan and her husband, both high-powered business leaders who love their jobs. The end of the paragraph either read “Susan has never wanted to be a mother, and the couple has decided to be child-free by choice. Susan wants her husband to get a vasectomy, and he has agreed” or “Susan has always wanted to be a mother, so the couple has decided to start a family. Susan has asked her husband to reverse his vasectomy, and he has agreed.” Participants were asked how much they support Susan’s lifestyle, trust her decision making, and how morally justified they believe her lifestyle to be. Participants who scored higher on defending patriarchy demonstrated low support for Susan in the first condition, but not in the second condition. Just as in the last study, support for social Darwinism was the greatest contributor to this effect, above SDO and gender essentialism. These studies emphasize that social Darwinism – the belief that some are destined to dominate and others to be dominated – is a critical force in understanding defense of patriarchy and backlash against agentic women. The study of Susan demonstrates that this effect even holds outside of the political context.
What role does race have on backlash against agentic women? Black women are often stereotyped as more androgynous or masculine than white women, and therefore may have less difficulty asserting their competence by demonstrating “male” traits. Alternatively, they may face double jeopardy of having to combat both racial and gender stereotypes, placing even more hurdles on the path to leadership. Psychological studies of race can prove challenging, Professor Rudman said, because white respondents have an intense fear of being perceived as bigoted, and therefore overcompensate in their answers to reveal a pro-black bias. In the job applicant example, black women get top marks on competence, likability, and hirability, whether they are depicted as agentic or communal.
Professor Rudman and her colleagues turned to a new paradigm in which respondents were told that they were choosing actors for a role as lab managers, thereby allowing all actors to use the same agentic script. In one condition, respondents saw a white man and a white woman, and in the other respondents saw a white man and a black woman. Again, participants were asked to rate the actors based on competence, likability, and hirability. In the first condition, respondents rated the white man and white woman as equally competent, but found the man much more likable than the woman and were more likely to hire him. In the second condition, respondents rated the black woman more likable than the white man, but found the white man far more competent and were more likely to hire him. While all women were at a disadvantage for hiring, for white women this result was based on likability, while for black women it was based on competence. This result is consistent with double jeopardy, that black women face a higher first hurdle than white women to prove their fitness for leadership positions. What it takes to surmount this obstacle is a pressing concern for future intersectional research.