Today, women are more likely to hold positions of power than they were decades ago. However, female leaders tend to be put under a microscope, facing more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

For example, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, was blamed for the many missteps in the company. As a young woman and a CEO, her social role as a woman and as a CEO may have been in conflict.

This conflict is not unique to Mayer, or even CEOs. Women in positions of power are assumed to immediately help other women come to power—but is that assumption true?

Andrea Vial examined whether women in power would hire other female candidates. Women in power might want to hire other women, but role demands might be stronger than personal attitudes and identities. Candidate fit needs to be considered: if a woman in power is choosing employees for a company with a strongly masculine “bro” culture, hiring another female candidate might end up becoming detrimental for that candidate.

Vial asked her participants to choose a vice president of operations for a company. The control group read a basic description of a male CEO, and the experimental group read the description of a male CEO who strongly adhered to traditional restrictive gender roles.

Participants had a choice between an average or qualified male or female candidate. When the CEO was described as prejudiced against women, participants chose the female candidate at a lower rate, a finding that was significant and has been replicated.

Vial also looked at how the participants’ sexism played a role in their choices for a VP of Operations. Men had higher modern sexism scores, but both men and women accommodated for the sexist CEO’s prejudices by not choosing the female candidate.

The idea that women leaders will always choose other women to lead is faulty—role priorities of the CEO constrain women’s ability to choose other female leaders, especially if factors like a sexist company culture will hurt the female candidate.

Intersections of Gender and Race

Looking at another facet of the issue, Eva Pietri examined when white female leaders function as role models for black women.

Pietri’s past research looked at how Black women related to either a Black male role model or a White female role model and asked how much attraction the Black female participants felt to the hypothetical company that the “role models” worked for.

Black women report more similarity and anticipated sense of belonging at the company with a Black male model; whereas a White female role model had the same effect as the control group. She posited that Black women feel that Black men had experienced similar oppression to themselves, and White women did not.

Pietri hypothesized that making gender bias salient would increase the likelihood of a White woman being a role model for a Black woman.

Pietri showed an informational module to Black female participants about the gender bias in STEM fields. The control group did not receive the module about gender bias in STEM. Then, participants were shown a webpage for a fictional company, with either a Black male employee or a White female employee.

In the STEM gender bias condition, the gender bias became more salient for Black women. The participants believed that the White women experienced bias as a leader in the fictional STEM company, which increased Black women’s perceived similarity to the White female—this increased anticipated belonging and trust.

When the category of gender bias becomes salient, Black women can choose a White woman as a role model, but the conditions that Pietri set forth do have to be considered.

Female leaders face much bias within society, with opposing pressures from society at large and from within the company. Simply increasing the number of female leaders will not be enough to truly close the gender gap in leadership.

Written By: Elisa Rapadas

Speakers: Andrea Vial (Yale University), Evava Pietri (Indiana University Purdue), and Francesca Manzi (New York University)

Program: Women in High Places: Helping or Hurting Other Women? held Saturday, March 3, 2018.