U. of Waikato:
Attraction & Ambivalence:
Gendered Perceptions of Power
Professor Hilary M. Lips, Ph.D.
1999 Fulbright NZ-U.S. Award Recipient
Public Lecture Presented
at New Zealand Universities
Copyright © 1999 H. Lips. All rights reserved
Hilary M. Lips, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology ~
Radford, Virginia 24142
For the last several years, I have been asking, mostly through questionnaires,
but also in some interviews, university students about their views of powerful
people and of potentially being powerful themselves. Here is a list of what
one group of Radford University students said when I asked them to imagine
who they would be as powerful persons. [OVERHEAD: LIST OF POWERFUL PERSONS,
Obviously, these students have no shortage
of ambition, but are there differences in the visions of the women and the
men? No man expects to marry power. No woman expects to get it through sports.
The women may seem to be more helpful or people-oriented in their visions,
perhaps? If so, it is not an overwhelming impression. The differences between
the responses of women and men are not dramatic. However, I find that when
I read further, or when I have interviewed my respondents, careful reading/listening
to what the women say suggests that they have not actually made their peace
with the idea of power, that they feel a great deal of ambivalence about
powerful women in general and themselves as potentially powerful women in
particular. Before looking further at what they say, let us take some time
to look at the possible sources of this ambivalence.
The media, at least in the U.S., are a strong
source of the notion that power and femininity do not fit well together
and of the notion that there is something wrong with powerful women. One
example that appeared in my home state in the last few years is the reaction
to the opening of the new Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (which
was supposed to balance the all-male Virginia Military Institute). The headline
over an article that focused on the uniform that would be required of these
young women was a blend of leadership and femininity [OVERHEAD: Not Available].
Hillary Clinton, the woman who is by far
the most likely to be listed when I ask my students and my research participants
for the names of powerful women, has been criticized for years in the U.S.
media as too pushy, too strong, too opinionated. Only in the last year or
so, since she has become a "wronged woman" does she seem to have
found favor. Attorney General Janet Reno, who is one of the most visible
powerful women in the US, has been the butt of jokes for her "unfeminine"
appearance. The message is clear that it is dangerous to deviate from a
fairly narrow feminine script if you are a visibly powerful woman.
On the other hand, deviating too much from
a traditional "powerful person script" is risky too.
An interesting reaction was triggered a few years ago by Canadian politician
Kim Campbell when she first began receiving press as the likely front-runner
for the prime-ministership of Canada. She had allowed her photograph to
be taken, for a book about professional women, in a pose that found her
standing behind screen or partition, with only her head and the tops of
her bare shoulders showing above the screen. It was quite a dignified photograph,
but the bare shoulders earned her the title, "Madonna of Canadian politics."
In this case, "too much" femininity was used to cancel out the impression
In white North American society, and in some
other parts of the world, women leaders often seem to face a double bind:
If they appear too tough, they are labeled unfeminine; if they appear too
feminine, they are assumed to be incapable of leadership. This double bind
is presented not just by the dominant culture, but also sometimes by feminist
culture, which can fall into the trap of urging women to take on leadership
roles and then castigating them if they become too authoritative or too
The assumed contradiction between power and
femininity may be somewhat culturally specific. For example, Patricia Parker
and dt ogilvie, (1996) argue that African American women do not experience
leadership and femininity as dichotomous. Nancy Adler (1996) notes that
some elite women political leaders around the world have successfully emphasized
certain aspects of the feminine role. She notes that Turkish prime minister
Tansu Çiller asserted during her campaign that she would be the mother,
sister, and daughter for the Turkish people; that Benazir Bhutto calls herself
the sister of the Pakistani people; and Dominica's Eugenia Charles refers
to herself as "mother of the people".
In some countries, even high heels, short
skirts, and a flirtateous demeanor may not automatically keep a woman from
being taken seriously as a leader. In Argentina, prominent conservative
cabinet minister Maria Julia Alsogaray unabashedly flaunted a feminine sensuality
while overseeing the sale of the country's state-owned telephone system,
running the state-owned steel company, and serving as Minister of the Environment
At first the idea that it is not appropriate
for women to be powerful may seem to stem mainly from the notion of women
as less competent, tough, or decisive than men, or that a woman who is attractive
cannot also be intelligent, clear-headed and firm. Researchers have been
showing for years, for instance, that people tend not to think of women
as "management material"-- listing the qualities necessary for a
successful manager as stereotypically masculine ones .
However, it appears that some of the negative
reactions also stem, not from negative stereotypes of women as less competent
than men, but from positive stereotypes of women as warm, caring people
-- and as people who are especially likely to be supportive of other women.
When people (and perhaps women especially) do react negatively toward powerful
women, it may well be that part of that negativity comes from dashed hopes
and unfulfilled expectations born of these positive stereotypes.
My female graduate students and colleagues
have often commented to me that they are more quickly and profoundly disappointed
when a woman physician, attorney, or professor lets them down than when
a man does the same thing. It is, they report, easier to take uncaring,
insensitive treatment from a man than from a woman.
Alice Eagly and her colleagues (Eagly, Mladinic,
& Otto, 1991) have demonstrated that people actually make more positive
evaluations of women than of men. Those evaluations may, they suggest, stem
from the ascription of positive communal qualities to women -- qualities
such as helpful, gentle, emotional, kind, understanding.
But what happens when those positive stereotypes are violated by a woman
in authority? I have a friend who tells the following story about her first
year of university teaching. After the first exam she was deluged with students
berating her for giving an "unfair" test. Concerned, and wanting desperately
to be fair, she asked her students to tell her specifically what they saw
as unfair about the test. After some squirming, one student burst out indignantly,
to a chorus of agreement from the others, "You come in here, and you're
all NICE and everything, and you tell us to call you by your first name,
and then you give us this HARD test. That's not fair.".
The research literature on teacher evaluations gives us some sobering indications
that my friend's experience was far from unique: women professors who do
not fulfill students' expectations that a woman will be "nice" and
"nurturant" are punished with negative evaluations. For example,
women perceived as difficult graders are judged more negatively than are
women perceived as easy graders, but the ratings of male instructors are
less likely to be related to their image as "hard" or "easy" graders (Unger,
1979). In rating hypothetical instructors, students have been found to give
lower ratings to a female instructor portrayed as not socializing with her
students outside the classroom, whereas socializing had no relationship
to ratings of male instructors. The sociable female instructors received
about the same ratings as did the sociable and the unsociable male instructor;
the unsociable female instructor was rated less positively than any of the
others (Kierstead, D'Agostino, & Dill, 1988). In a similar vein, student
ratings of female and male instructors portrayed in a slide-tape presentation
as smiling or not smiling showed a bias against the woman who did not fall
into the "nice" feminine stereotype. The unsmiling man was rated somewhat
more favorably than the smiling man, but the smiling woman was rated much
more favorably than the unsmiling woman (Kierstead et al., 1988). These
findings parallel others showing that women instructors are judged more
harshly than men if they do not meet stereotypically feminine standards
of behavior with respect to friendliness, student contact and support --
and that students do not necessarily give higher ratings to men who give
them greater time and attention (Bennett, 1982; Martin, 1984). Interestingly,
students of both genders hold women faculty to these higher standards.
A meta-analytic study of gender and the evaluation
of leaders underlines the tendency to judge women leaders harshly when they
depart from expected feminine behavior. Eagly, Makhijani and Klonsky (1992)
found in their overview of studies that women leaders were devalued more
than men when they were exhibiting leadership styles characterized as masculine:
autocratic and directive. Women and men were given equivalent ratings, however,
when the leadership style portrayed was stereotypically feminine: democratic
and interpersonally oriented. As they note, their findings parallel those
on conformity and status in small groups explored by Ridegeway many years
ago (1982): friendly, cooperative, interpersonally-oriented behavior enhanced
women's status and their influence over other group members but had little
or not impact on men's status and influence. Ridgeway speculated that the
stereotypically feminine behavior demonstrated women's group-oriented motivation
and their lack of self-aggrandizing motives. Men did not have to demonstrate
this because group members saw them as having an inherent right to lead!
Women in position of power or authority seem
well aware of the need to balance their power with good interpersonal relations.
The women in leadership workshops that I facilitated a few years ago listed
such skill learning objectives as: how to "be a leader without being
pushy," "how to influence without causing negative reactions,"
"how to monitor others' perceptions of you while you influence",
how to be better at "communication with regard to being more powerful
and less female," "making your male peers more receptive to your
ideas and expertise without feeling threatened."
I have focused on attitudes toward powerful
women; how are these attitudes conveyed? In a telling laboratory study,
Dore Butler and Florence Geis (1990) trained female and male confederates
to try to become the leaders in mixed-gender four-person groups. The males
and females used the same scripts, made the same suggestions, using the
same words, and followed similar tactics in trying to get the other group
members to follow their lead. What Butler and Geis found was that women
trying to take leadership of the groups became the targets of nonverbal
disapproval. People frowned at them as they talked -- and the more they
talked, the more the other group members frowned! When men, using the same
script as the women, tried to take leadership of their assigned groups,
the nonverbal reactions were much more favorable. Their suggestions (the
same suggestions, remember) were greeted with smiles and nods, not frowns.
It appeared that group members were made uncomfortable by the idea of a
woman taking charge of mixed gender group -- although these research participants
said, when asked, that they had nothing against female leaders, and they
were not aware of their nonverbal discouragement of the female leader. The
negative nonverbal reactions to would-be female leaders were displayed by
both women and men. It appears that people are not always aware of their
negative reactions to female leaders.
There has been much discussion recently about the differing interaction
styles favored by women and men in this culture. Eagly and Johnson's (1990)
meta-analytic study of gender and leadership style showed that, on the average,
women tend to lead in a more democratic and less autocratic style than men.
Eleanor Maccoby (1990) has written about the way that girls and boys, playing
in same-sex groups, develop habits of interaction that can be characterized,
respectively, as "enabling" and "inhibiting." Girls, she says, develop communication
styles that involve a lot of turn-taking, listening, and supportive reactions
to other speakers. Boys develop styles that involve competition for the
floor, interruptions, and open disagreement with other speakers.
Can we gain any insight about women's reactions
to powerful women from the observations of these researchers? Perhaps. Eagly
and Johnson (1990) suggest that disapproval is directed specifically at
women leaders who violate gender expectations by leading in and autocratic
and directive manner BECAUSE such a leadership style by a woman is particularly
disruptive to expected patterns of gender deference.
Do young women moving toward the goal of
a powerful position sense the difficulties inherent in the evaluations of
powerful women? Are they aware of the tightrope that powerful women have
to walk: balancing power and influence with connection and relationships
in order to sustain the approval of those around them?
I began looking at these questions be examining
the responses of 12 young women who participated in a pilot study of attitudes
toward power and powerful women. They each filled out an open-ended questionnaire
about these issues and then participated in a small-group discussion which
was taped and later transcribed and analyzed for themes. I will present
their responses in 3 frameworks: reactions to powerful women at a distance;
reactions to powerful women in their own lives; their own articulated "possible
selves" as powerful women. I think what you will see from their words is
that their views of power and of powerful women are complex and multilayered.
They are aware of the stereotypes of powerful women, but they use them nonetheless.
They like the idea of power, but it makes them very nervous.
Powerful women at a distance:
A. Great Expectations/Admiration:
The following comments are representative
of this very common theme. The women in this sample obviously knew that
being a powerful woman was hard work!
women have had to work harder than men to get their power."
"powerful women have more to prove"
"Powerful women do not use their powerful position to get over an
"women have less power trips. They don't do something just to feel
or see their power"
"more than likely women had to struggle more than men"
"a powerful woman encompasses more to me. She is strong and emotional"
"women have to possess an inner strength to fight the prejudices against
them to gain power"
"powerful women ... are like role models. Everyone needs someone to
look up to and help them strive in the right direction for the future"
"they [are] .. someone to look up to , and a woman understands another
woman better than any man can"
B. Low Esteem/ Suspicion
On the other hand, powerful women seemed
to make these young women nervous and uncomfortable. Here are some of the
things they said:
go overboard about using power" "In some situations [women] use their
power more on males. As if they're saying 'I've got this power; I'm
going to use it' "Bitchy. ... Have problems getting others to accept
their control" "[Powerful women are] .. nicer to the males. Maybe
they want their acceptance more. It's like they needed the approval
of the males more than the females. It's like they need to prove themselves
to the males"
Powerful Women in participant's own lives:
There were many comments about the competitiveness
among women. In particular, these young women said, in a variety of ways,
that they felt competitive with powerful women, but not with powerful men.
are so competitive"
"..would much rather have a dominating male boss than a dominating
female boss... Accept it more"
"when a male teacher uses power it's ok... when female teachers use
power, it's like they thought they were better than me... makes me
feel competitive...that use of power is more expected of a man"
"[I] .. accepted it more when my male boss yelled at me [than when
my female boss did]. It's like .. he' my boss, I have to do it..."
"women using power ... they're putting me down ... think they're better
than me. A woman boss must treat me as part of the team. Not so necessary
for a man [boss]."
"Men [supervisors] treat women more sensitively than women do. It's
like they think 'I'm talking to a women. I have to watch myself'.
They're harsher with guys."
"where my mom works ... the women below her are petty and picky, and
always crying ... if one woman has a really good position, they're
going to get jealous and try to stab her in the back"
Quite a few of the women were very appreciative
of special help they had received from powerful women.
woman] uses power with me. She helps me make decisions ... a helping
power, not a controlling power"
"she was smart, but never made me feel dumb..."
"she was there when I needed someone to talk to"
"she helped me gain self-confidence, as well as some power of my own....she
allowed herself to help me by getting me to help myself"
C. Ambivalence about power relationships that are "personal"
Finally, there were a number of comments
about the difficulty of "knowing where one stands" with a powerful woman.
Are you her friend? Or is she someone you have to "watch out for"? The attempts
of women in authority to maintain a sense of connection and caring in their
relationships with their subordinates and students may lead to confusion.
men [teachers] it's almost nonpersonal, so you keep your bubble. A
woman ... (groans, laughter) ... men keep it at a distance ... it's
like, this is your job, this is my job. ... with women it's like,
this is your job, but if you get on my nerves or if I'm cranky or
if I'm having a bad day...they're gonna like, take their personal
opinions out on you in a professional way...."
"women take everything so personally. ... they think "she doesn't
like me ... men don't take it that way"
Articulation of powerful possible selves:
Recently, some researchers have turned their
attention to investigating the notion of "possible selves" -- personalized
representations of one's self in various future states (Markus & Nurius,
1986; Cross & Markus, 1991). A given individual may have numerous possible
selves -- many visions of her/himself that seem possible under particular
circumstances. These possible selves may cover a variety of domains, such
as career, relationships, physical wellbeing, and leisure, and may be positive
(eg. the famous author self, the lottery-winning self, the happily married
self, the strong and healthy self) or negative (eg. the failed student self,
the poverty-stricken self, the lonely and isolated self, the frail and sickly
Possible selves are profoundly social and
cultural as well as individual. Theoretically, individuals construct their
possible selves through social comparison and the observation of models.
For instance, Jenny Shipley=s role as Prime Minister may have helped to
create and nurture a new possible self for New Zealand girls and women:
that of a political leader. In constructing their possible selves individuals
may be shaping the direction of their own future development. Once a possible
self is imagined, the individual may take behavioral steps to actualize
One of the most intriguing aspects of the
study of possible selves is that these selves may serve as motivators, providing
a specific image or vision attached to an individual's desire for competence,
affiliation, success. A young girl who can envision herself as a research
scientist, for instance, is likely to investigate what she would need to
do in order to actualize that goal. Conversely, the absence of a particular
possible self may blunt or derail the efforts or ambitions of individuals,
even if they have the skills and ability necessary to reach a particular
goal. A female college student who is succeeding at and enjoying her courses
in mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering, but who says "I
just can't see myself as an engineer," is not likely to persevere in engineering.
I asked the young women in my study to articulate
their possible selves as powerful women, and also as powerful women in three
specific roles: CEO of a major corporation, U.S. Senator, and Head Scientist
in charge of a large, important research team. The themes that leapt out
at me from their words are these:
A. Importance of being fair, ":nice"
These young women did not want to be powerful
if it meant they would not be liked, perceived as nice people.
| "People could always
ask me anything. I would take care of them. I would be their security.">BR>
"I would definitely get to know all of the members of the company.
I would try to make the people want to come to work every day"
"I would be very understanding and fair"
"I would be caring, willing to listen and work with the people"
"I would be kind and really respect my co-workers...hardworking, intelligent,
kind, patient and feminine"
B. Difficulty of being liked/ maintaining relationships
These women worried that they would not have
time, or perhaps inclination, to cultivate relationships if they held powerful
| "the work would
get a little depressing because probably would have no kids -- only
"would probably get a little out of touch with peers socially"
"I would have no life!"
"I would feel alone ... no friendships with other employees"
C. Enjoyment of being "in charge"
They did, however, enjoy the image of themselves as people who would be
able to change things, to make a difference.
| "I would like the
power to be able to make a difference"
"I would like being in control of an important company"
"I would like the image of myself and the success associated with
my role.... I would like the respect"
"I would like being powerful in decision-making situations"
D. Difficulty of being strong enough
Several of them worried about being strong
or tough enough to stay in control.
| "I just feel like
to be powerful you have to be able to let people know you mean business.
I'm just not loud enough and harsh enough. It was really hard for
me to imagine being in control and not looking up to somebody else."
"I would be a manly looking woman that feels like I am in charge...I
don't want anyone thinking I am easy to run over"
"I would feel awkward telling people what I want done. I'd rather
do it myself"
E. Importance of being able to help
There were many comments that suggested that
the justification for holding power lay in the ability to help others:
| "I would discover
cures for terminal diseases..."
"I like the chance of helping others..."
"I would do my best for the people..."
"..Try to find the cures for all the deadly diseases out there"
F. Worry over responsibility, blame
Some respondents worried about the consequences
of failure, of holding the ultimate responsibility for outcomes.
| "the responsibility
"I hate to be the blame for the company failing if that was to happen"
"I would dislike the responsibility over such an important group of
The ambivalence of these young women toward
power is obvious in their responses. They see, realistically, that powerful
women can create strong negative reactions in others, unless they are very,
very careful. I wondered if women=s reactions differed from men=s in this
respect, and I wondered if I could pinpoint some of the sources of the ambivalence
toward power, and so I set out to examine these issues systematically with
a larger group of women and a comparison group of men.
The respondents were Radford University undergraduates
(33 women and 30 men) with a mean age of just over 21 years. The sample
was 92% single, and in terms of race/ethnicity, about 78% European-American/white,
6% African-American, 9% Asian-American, and 7% other groups.
Each participant completed a long, mainly
open-ended questionnaire developed on the basis of the pilot research. It
begins by providing a definition of power ("the capacity to have
an influence, or an inmpact, on other people") and a request that
the respondent try to imagine her/himself as a person with power ("Imagine
yourself as a person with power. What or who would you be?"). The
respondent was then asked to "imagine what you would be like if
you were the person you have imagined. What would you be like? What would
you do? How would you look? How would you feel? How would you act?"
and to write down her/his reactions.
Participants were then asked to imagine themselves
in three particular powerful roles: CEO or president of a large company,
holder of an important political leadership position, and director of an
important scientific research center, and to write about what they would
be like as holders of such positions. In each case, they were also asked
to use a 5-point scale to rate the possibility that they would actually
become the person they have imagined. In the latter 3 cases, they were also
asked to rate how positive this image of themselves was and to state what
they would like and dislike about the position. At the end of this section,
they were asked which of the 3 possibilities they had the most difficulty
imagining, and why.
The second part of the questionnaire asked
the respondents to list powerful persons, powerful women, and powerful men
that they can think of, to describe the most positive and negative personal
experiences they have had with powerful women and men, and to say if and
how women with power differ from men with power. Next, they were asked to
comment on how most women and most men view women with power and men with
power. Finally, they were asked to list and describe their relationship
with women and men in their own lives who hold or have held power with respect
In examining the questionnaire responses,
we found that omen and men differed significantly in their rating of the
possibility that they would become the person they had imagined in the very
first question: Women thought it was less likely than men did that this
possibility would be actualized.
Turning to the participants' visions of themselves
in the three specific roles of CEO, political leader, and director of a
scientific research center, some interesting patterns appear. First of all,
the possibility that they have the most difficulty imagining for themselves
is that of the political leader. Forty-seven percent of the sample listed
the political leader as the least imaginable possibility; 40% listed the
scientific director as least imaginable; only 4 people listed the CEO. The
women in the sample were more likely than the men to list the political
leadership role as the most difficult to imagine: 51.5% to 43.3%. Participants
were quite emphatic in their comments about why it was difficult to imagine
themselves in a political leadership position. Here is a sample of their
| Because I have
an aversion to it.
Because it would be a nightmare.
I don't imagine myself as a political leader; I am not that cruel.
Because they are all untrustworthy people.
Because you can't satisfy everybody's needs and that would make me
feel like a failure.
I see all politicians as bad guys.
The mean ratings for the questions about
"how possible" and "how positive" are the images of the three specific roles
of CEO, political leader, and director of a scientific research center,
show a consistent gender difference. As seen in the next two graphs, [OVERHEADS
HERE], women rated all the roles as less possible and less positive than
A multivariate analysis on these scales showed
that there was a significant multivariate effect of gender, F(7,46)=2.24,
p<.05, which further analyses showed could be attributed mainly to the ratings
of possibility for the respondents' own imagined "person with power," F(1,52)=5.23,
p<.026, and for the political leadership position, F(1,52)=4.57, p<.05,
and for the rating of how positive was their image of the political leader
F(1,52)=10.34, p<.002. The women were less sanguine than the men about the
possibility and the positiveness of these roles.
The themes that had emerged in the earlier
pilot study led me to wonder whether concerns about relationship moderate
young women's and men's attraction to powerful positions. In order to determine
this, my students and I sorted the respondents' descriptions of the three
"possible self" roles according to whether they included worry or negative
feelings about relationships. Two raters sorted each of the three sets of
responses into one of the following 3 categories: (1) refusal to answer
the question; (2) no relationship problems anticipated with this possible
self; (3) anticipated relationship problems associated with this possible
self. Although the kinds of relationship concerns mentioned included a wide
range of possibilities, we simply coded for the presence or absence of any
anticipated relationship problem. We found this coding to be very reliable,
with high agreement between raters.
An examination of the responses coded as
anticipated relationship problems revealed a wide range of concerns, including
setting relationship boundaries ("I would be friendly but not too
friendly with co-workers. I would want to have some kind of barrier between
me and my workers so there would be a level of respect"); finding
an appropriate balance between the images of femininity and power to project
to others ("I would wear business suits every day. My hair would
always be up in a bun to symbolize that I am not ... a sex symbol just because
I am a woman in power"); difficulties with trust and openness ("I
... wouldn't feel very secure because nobody trusts politicians");
and using work or position as a way of distancing the self from others ("I
would act like I knew more than other people").
The graph for the Percentage of Respondents
Mentioning Relationship Problems shows the frequency of anticipated relationship
problems according to role and gender.
With respect to the relationship between gender and the sorting categories,
frequency analyses showed that gender and relationship-problem category
were significantly related for the political leader role, but not for the
other two roles. When imagining themselves as political leaders, women were
more likely than men to anticipate relationship problems.
Results from the analysis of frequencies
by gender were also supported by the ratings that respondents gave to the
possibility of becoming a political leader. A 2-way analysis of variance
showed that the anticipation or non-anticipation of relationship problems
(RP category) was significantly associated with possibility ratings for
the political leadership role: Those who anticipated relationship problems
(both women and men) gave lower possibility ratings for this role than did
those who did not anticipate such problems, F(1, 55)=35.84, p<.001. However,
women's reluctance to imagine themselves in this role came through strongly:
Among respondents who did not anticipate that they would experience relationship
problems in this role, women rated the role as less possible for themselves
than men did. So women were more likely to anticipate relationship problems
as political leaders, which may have dampened their enthusiasm for the political
role, but even those who did not anticipate relationship problems saw this
role as less possible for themselves than men did.
In subsequent studies, I have not always
found exactly the same pattern as this one, but I have almost always found
that young women show more concern than men do about the problems that powerful
positions may create for relationships. For instance, in a second sample
of RU students, I found that women anticipated more relationship problems
than men did in the CEO and Science Director roles, and in a study comparing
US and Puerto Rican students, I found a general tendency for women to anticipate
more relationship problems than men did with powerful roles.
So, while it clearly is not the only barrier
that young women perceive, concern over the way one's relationships may
be affected by holding a powerful position is apparently one of the things
inhibiting women from aspiring to such roles.
Why are women concerned? The media treatment
of powerful women I discussed at the beginning of this talk provides one
possible answer. If they pay attention to mass media characterizations of
powerful women, young women may be convinced of generally negative reaction
to powerful women. A look at the data from my respondents suggests that,
at the very least, they have a strong suspicion that men react negatively
to powerful women. Our questionnaire asked, in an open-ended way, what most
men and women thought of powerful women and powerful men. My student Claudia
Diaz Zuniga, who examined these responses, found that by far the most negative
responses came from the item: most men think that powerful women are....
And the negative responses that were filled in here included themes such
as: autocratic, bitchy, ineffective, and cold. So, many of these young women
were apparently convinced that men resented and disapproved of powerful
Another thing that probably inhibits young
women from imagining themselves as powerful is the shortage of powerful
women role models. One of the things that our questionnaire asked of respondents
was to list the names of persons with power that they could think of. My
student, Lori Wilson discovered that, when asked to do this, respondents
of both sexes listed men over five and one-half times more frequently than
I wondered whether the patterns I was seeing
with my respondents in the southern United States would be similar to those
in other places, so I set about trying to gather data in other countries.
That meant, of course, translating the questionnaire into other languages.
Some years ago, with the help of my colleague Mirta Gonzalez at the University
of Costa Rica, I translated the questionnaire into Spanish, and then translated
the Spanish version back into English to make the two versions as compatible
as possible. One of the major problems we encountered in doing this translation
was that there was no easy way to translate the phrase "powerful woman"
into Spanish. In Spanish, the direct translation,"mujer poderosa,"
means strong (i.e., muscular) woman. We eventually had to settle for "a
woman with power" (mujer con poder). (Interestingly, when I later
tried to get the questionnaire translated into Chinese, my translator faced
the same problem: She could not figure out a way to say "powerful
woman" in Chinese). Clearly, the idea of a powerful woman is not
one that people are used to.
With the Spanish version of the questionnaire,
we collected a sample of responses from 25 women and twenty-five men, undergraduate
students at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain. My graduate students
Sudie Back and Claudia Diaz Zuniga translated and coded their answers and
worked with me to analyze them. When we looked at their responses, we found
both similarities and differences from the U.S. sample:
Now obviously, we cannot use this one study to draw any conclusions about
general differences between women in the US and Spain. On the other hand,
the similarities between the two samples do seem to be worth noting. In
both samples, the political role seems the least possible one for women,
respondents have a much harder time thinking of powerful women than powerful
men, and respondents seem to be convinced that men hold an especially negative
view of powerful women. Clearly, university students in both countries have
been exposed to the notion that power, perhaps especially political power,
is problematic for women.
- like American
students, the Spanish students regarded their own imagined role as more
possible for them than any of the other 3 roles we specifically asked
them to imagine
- like American
women, the Spanish women found the political leader role most difficult
to imagine. However, they rated the CEO role as the most negative.
- like American students,
the Spanish students listed more men than women when asked to name powerful
- like American students,
the Spanish students gave the most negative responses to the item "Most
men think that powerful women are ...." in comparison to the
items asking what most women think of powerful women and what men and
women think of powerful men
- the students in
Spain, in contrast to the students in the U.S., mentioned relatively
few anticipated relationship problems in connection with any of the
roles. Also, in contrast to the US sample, there were no gender differences
in ratings of the possibility or positivity of the various roles.
- when relationship
problems were mentioned, they were most often associated with the CEO
role (18% of respondents listed potential relationship problems with
this role), which was the most negatively-rated role.
- in the Spanish
sample, there was only a small and non-significant tendency for women
to list more anticipated relationship problems than men (13% of women
vs. 9% of men listed relationship problems with any role)
- the one way in
which the Spanish sample differed quite dramatically from the US sample
was in the anticipated relationship problems associated with the political
leader role. The students in Spain foresaw significantly
fewer relationship problems associated with this role than
the students in the US did
- when we broke the
responses down by gender, we found that this difference was mainly due
to the women in the two samples. Whereas 57% of the US women had anticipated
relationship problems with this role, only 16% of the Spanish women
On the other hand, reading the responses
of the Spanish sample suggested to us that we might be missing the boat
by focusing exclusively on relationship problems, that there are other potential
sources of ambivalence about powerful roles. In reading the responses
of the students in Spain, we often ran across very negative comments about
powerful roles-but they were not the kinds of comments that fit into the
"relationship problems" category. Also, we were mindful of our
conclusions from the US data that relationship problems were not "the
whole story" in explaining ambivalence that respondents may feel
about powerful roles. This led us to develop a more elaborate coding scheme
to examine a broader spectrum of conflicts/ambivalences. We are still in
the early stages of working with this coding scheme, but we have applied
it to a comparison of a sample of female respondents from Argentina and
a subset our original US sample on one portion of the questionnaire: the
section that asks students to describe and evaluate who they would be if
they were a powerful person.
The Argentina sample is made up of 45 women
from psychology classes in three universities in Buenos Aires, with a mean
age of just under 21 years. Their responses were collected, coded, and analyzed
and interpreted with me by my colleague Renata de Verthelyi, who is a psychologist
The coding system we used looked at both
conflicts and values associated with holding powerful roles. First,
we coded for the presence or absence of any type of conflict-indicated by
the use of wording that indicated tension between two opposing goals, such
as "firm, but fair," "successful, but not forget my friends."
Next, we coded for the presence or absence of several
different types of conflict, shown here [OVERHEAD: TYPES OF CONFLICT CODED].
Third, we also coded for specific values that respondents
mentioned, as shown here [OVERHEAD: TYPES OF VALUES CODED].
Finally, we coded for "what they would use their
power for," as shown [OVERHEAD: WHAT POWER WOULD BE USED FOR].
Applying this coding system to the Argentina
sample, we found that just over 39% mentioned some form or conflict or ambivalence
when describing their own imagined powerful role. Of the various types of
conflicts we were looking for, only three were mentioned with notable frequency:
authoritarian vs. democratic (17.9%), accomplishment vs. stress (10.7%),
and successful/famous vs. modest/humble (7.1%). Each of the others was mentioned
by fewer than 4% of the respondents.
When describing what they would be like in
their imagined powerful role, these Argentine women were especially likely
to mention as desirable the values of competence (41.1%) and openness (23.2%),
and smaller numbers mentioned other values.
A majority (53.5%) said that they would use
their power to try to create change for the better in the world, and one-half
of them reported that it was either "possible" or "very possible" that they
would be in the position that they had imagined.
We are still working on coding the US sample
using this newer coding system. However, in comparing a randomly selected
subset of 25 women from the US sample to the Argentine women, we have found
few differences so far. The two groups of women do not differ in the proportion
that mention some type of conflict connected to their imagined powerful
role. Nor did they differ in the type of conflict that they imagined. In
both samples, the most frequently mentioned was "authoritarian vs.
democratic." In terms of values, the US women, like the Argentine
women, were most likely to mention the value of competence (40%). However,
they were less likely than the Argentine women to mention openness (only
12% as opposed to 23%) and considerably more likely than the Argentine women
to mention kindness/consideration (40% as opposed to 10.7%).
Interestingly, the Argentine women were more
likely to imagine themselves as politicians than the US women were (27%
vs. 12%). However, their responses also indicated that they anticipated
disliking that role. In fact, of all the women in both samples who used
the reason "dislike the position" to explain the low likelihood of their
imagined role "coming true", almost two-thirds (63%) were imagining a political
position. This notion of disliking the role came up much more often with
politics than with any other field.
Obviously we have a lot more to do with these
data. However, once again, we have identified some similarities between
the women in Argentina and those in our other samples. A significant number
of them seem to be ambivalent about the notion of holding a powerful role;
in particular, a number of them indicate discomfort with the idea of themselves
in role of political leader; they find it easier to think of powerful persons
who are men than who are women, and they seem convinced that most men react
negatively to powerful women.
Fom the University of Waikato Presentation