Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 267
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Punishment for Success

New research reveals how to correct a common employee disappointment.

Madeline Heilman, from New York University, has a real lemon on her hands. It's research she carried out to reveal conclusions she had already made. Such research does not advance our knowledge unless it stumbles upon a new finding, and that's what happened with Ms. Heilman's study.

Heilman began innocently enough with the observation that women are not well represented at the executive level in major corporations. It's a legitimate problem. We need the unique contribution that women can make. It's a squandering of a valuable resource, and it reveals a human cost of lost opportunity for individuals whose potential is thwarted. Unfortunately, Ms. Heilman designed a research study guaranteed to discover the findings she was hoping would emerge.

Her first step was to select people whose gender stereotypes she could explore. She chose Intro to Psych university students, average age: 19.5. Teenagers! Cowed, away-from-home-for-the-first-time undergraduates who think obsessively about who they are and what kind of adults they will become. Not surprisingly, she found clear differences in this group between the kind of people they think women should be and the kind of people they think men should be. Women, she found, should be socially sensitive, service oriented, and should value supporting community and family needs. Men should be self-assertive, tough, and achievement oriented. Further, women should not display behaviors typically associated with men, and men should not display behaviors typically associated with women.

With these stereotypes clearly in mind, Ms. Heilman's next step was to describe hypothetical people and situations to these students and instruct them to answer questions. The hypothetical people in her descriptions were assistant vice presidents in an aircraft manufacturing company, and their jobs involved supervising junior executives. Most were male, but she mixed in a few women to see how these students would react to a woman in a clearly male job. The questions she asked involved rating performance and also describing their personal feelings about these hypothetical people. The students were asked to describe how likely it was that they would like these job holders. They were also asked to rate how abrasive, conniving, manipulative, trustworthy, selfish, and pushy they thought these job holders were. Not surprisingly, the students reported higher negative ratings for the women in these jobs. They had, after all, violated the stereotyped gender norms these students had just finished describing, and since the hypothetical people weren't real, the students had only their stereotypes to examine to form these judgments.

Most people would not answer such silly questions, but Ms. Heilman's subjects gave her enough data, so she could support the conclusions she had already formed: Women are victimized in the workplace by gender stereotypes that punish them with social sanctions such as dislike for being clearly successful in male-dominated occupations.

But a funny thing happened on the way to these conclusions.

A second study intended to repeat the findings of the first included situations that placed men in hypothetical positions that are dominated by women and require stereotypical female qualities to be successful. Once again, women succeeding in male dominated roles were punished by Heilman's teenagers imagining negative qualities about them, but their strongest invective was reserved for the men. When hypothetical men filled roles dominated by women, then the students reacted so strongly that their negativity carried over to a third role intended to display neutral, middle ground. No negative reactions were expected for this role, but for men, there they were. Heilman believes she stumbled upon a general prejudice against men, and this definitely intruded into her agenda to expose prejudice punishing successful women occupying male-dominated roles. She promised a future study to explore it.

Heilman's research urged undergraduates to reveal their gender stereotypes and then to form judgments based on them, but her work begs the question of wider applicability. She would have us believe that her undergraduates are representative of the population at large. I doubt that. I think mature people are appreciative of the positive qualities they find in others regardless of their gender. I am, however, troubled by the impact of such research on women who are invited by it to be suspicious of men and to expect social punishment if they dare to be successful in a male-dominated role. Such expectations, too often, become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Reference: Heilman, Madeline E., Aaron Wallen, Daniella Fuchs, and Melinda Tamkins (2004) Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89 (3), 416-427.

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