Saturday, April 22, 2017

Different Power Rules Apply to Men than to Women (LWB Farewell Series)

Originally published on the LWB on April 28, 2012

A just released study by the Yale Law Women documents that class participation at Yale Law tends to be disproportionately male (H/T to Jeff and Lior Strahilevitz at Prawfblawg).  Although the report offers prescriptive advice for Yale faculty and students on how to close the gap, it does not offer an empirically grounded explanation for why the gap exists in the first place.  Coincidentally, I recently read another empirical study that appears to offer an answer. 

BrescollIn an article in the 2012 volume of Adminstrative Science Quarterly, Yale School of Management professor Victoria Brescoll provides compelling evidence that different power rules apply to women than men.  Brescoll's article, "Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations," found that when women possess the same objective measures of power as men, they are reluctant to use that power to speak up (i.e., be voluble) in organizational settings. 

Why are powerful women less likely to speak up? Because of fear of backlash.  Further, the fear is justified.  Specifically, holding the objective measures of power constant, Brescoll found that when women were more voluble in meetings, they tended to be viewed as less likeable and deserving--and here is the kicker, less likeable and deserving at roughly the same levels by both male and female peers.  In contrast, when powerful men were more voluble, their peers--both males and females--viewed them as more likeable and more deserving.

Wow.  This is quite a problem.  Brescoll observes that "the presciptions for powerful men's and women's behavior may be much more comprehensive than originally hypothesized (i.e., power men should display their power, while powerful women should not)."  This differential in power rules is not something amenable to a quick, simple fix.  Its root cause appears to be buried deep in both the male and female subconscious. It's hard to fix what we don't understand.

Over at Work Matters (H/T), Bob Sutton posted the perfect cartoon to summarize the Brescoll study:


It is worth noting the Yale Law Women describe social norms at Yale that essentially mirror Brescoll's results.  On page 24 of the report, a YLS professor is quoted, "I think there’s an in-group dynamic where when women are gunners, they get punished more than men for doing it. Their classmates’ reactions are harsher.”   The report continues, "This observation finds widespread support in the student survey among both men and women. Multiple students mentioned that there are norms about participation and women are either more likely to abide by the norms or are more likely to receive criticism for breaking them."  The Brescoll study lends substantial support to this explanation.  Again, not an easy problem to solve.

Some readers might be interested in a more in-depth description of Brescoll's research design.  So here it goes.  Brescoll results are based on the findings of three interconnected empirical studies.  She starts with the established empirical fact that powerful people tend to assert their power through commanding more time--i.e., being voluble--in organizational settings.  As a historical matter, most power has been held by men.  Now that women have obtained some measure of social/organizational power, we want to know whether women, holding objective measures of power constant, are equally voluble.

  • Study 1.  Is volubility a function of power alone, with equal volubility among males and females with comparable power?  According to Study 1, which studied patterns of floor time among male and female U.S. Senators (2005 session, controlled by Repulicans and 2007 session, controlled by Democrats), the answer is no.  The connection between more power and more volubility was observed only among male Senators.  In contrast, more power was not associated with more floor tiime taken by female Senators.
  • Study 2.  Following up on Study 1, Study 2 essentially asks, "why are equally powerful females more reticent than their male counterparts?" Using a controlled experiment format with male and female participants with workplace experience (average age 38, most with at least "some college" education), participants were asked to simulate an organizational meetings in which important decisions needed to be made.  Holding levels of power constant, female participants were much less likely to speak-up.  The primary explanatory variable was fear of  social backlash. 
  • Study 3.  The question that flows from Study 2 is essentially, "Is the female fear of backlash justfied?"   Study 3 used a similar controlled experiment design to ascertain how male and females reacted to powerful CEOs.  The only two variables were volubility in meetings and gender of the CEO.   Remarkably, for both male and female study participants, male CEOs who dominated a meetings were viewed as competent and deserving.  In contrast, for female CEOs, the opposite was true--more volubility led study participants to view powerful female CEOs as less competent and less deserving.

Very important research.

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