Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
-Shirley Chisholm, former Vice Chair of the Democratic House Caucus.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union Commission, sat down hesitantly on an adjacent sofa as the president of Turkey and her colleague Charles Michel took the only two seats in the room. It was an awkward diplomatic situation at a top-level E.U. visit to Turkey; by protocol, von der Leyen should’ve sat next to Michel, but she was left standing as the two men nonchalantly looked around the room.
The moment took Twitter by storm. Soon, #GiveHerASeat and #Sofagate were trending, branding the snub as a sign of enduring sexism. As von der Leyen addressed a room of European lawmakers after the incident, she asked, “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” She had risen to the top of the executive branch of the EU, they were surrounded by cameras and still this incident was allowed to happen. What if there had been no cameras and no official status? How many more thousands of “sofagates” go unobserved and what price are we as a society paying for them?
There were almost 700 students in last year’s graduating class here at North. 50% of them were girls. Those who chose to go to college might become part of the class of 2025, where, if current trends continue, they will now outnumber their male counterparts. In fact, in the United States, girls earn 57% of the undergraduate degrees, 60% of the masters degrees, and 53% percent of the doctoral degrees (Sandberg, 15).
Enter the workforce. Women make up 48% of entry-level employees, but by the time we ascend to the C-suite, that number has sunk to 22%. Only 41 of the Fortune 500 companies (a ranking of America’s largest corporations by revenue) are led by a woman, twice the number in 2013, but still only 8%. Women – particularly women of color – remain dramatically underrepresented in the executive world.
As for outside the corporate world, we need look no further than our own government to see the same trend: a meager 27% of our representatives in the United States Congress are women. Globally, 22 of the 195 independent countries in the world have a woman head of state or government, and the United States has never been among their number.
How did this happen? How did 50% become 22%? How many women and young girls decided to give up after their “sofagate”? And more importantly, how can our generation do better?
Part 1: Childhood Impressions
I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it with me.”
–JCPenney T-shirt for girls, 2011.
When I was in elementary school, we used to have spelling quizzes every week. Whenever we got 100%, my girlfriends and I would mute our achievements, even to each other, while the boys openly compared scores. It seemed presumptuous and brazen for us girls to broadcast our achievements, and when we got older, it felt unnatural – unattractive, even. Why? Were girls naturally more timid than their male peers, less willing to speak up?
Across the country, in the classrooms which deeply shape our beliefs and values as children, gender biases endure. Studies have shown that unconsciously, teachers tend to expect higher performance from boys than from girls. A 2015 study found that girls often score higher than boys on math tests, but “once presented with recognizable boy and girl names on the same tests, teachers award higher scores to boys.” Further, from preschool to university, men receive more instruction and attention from teachers than women. Teachers are more likely to call on male students even when both sexes volunteer equally; they give as much as ⅔ of their time to male students; they prompt boys to speak more and reward quietness from girls; and perhaps most importantly, they are more likely to give male students constructive, positive criticism while offering only vague and superficial remarks to female students. For example, women are more likely to receive feedback on an assignment about neatness and appearance, and men are more likely to hear about the innovativeness of their work and be encouraged to explore deeper.
These discrepancies give many women the impression that their input is less important, or that it is better to sit down and wait to be spoken to by their superiors. But, as Sheryl Sandberg said, in a world where “career progression often depends on taking risks and advocating for oneself,” and calling out answers is rewarded more often than silent hand-raising, the instincts that so many women leave the classroom with are not a formula for success.
Part 2: Likeable or Successful
A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless… all a woman has to do is put you on hold.
–Marlo Thomas, actress
By the time we reach the workplace, these implicit biases are entrenched, so much so that they impact who gets employed, fired, promoted and demoted. In 2003, researchers from Columbia Business School presented students with the hypothetical resume of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Half of the students were told that the applicant was male; the other half was told that the applicant was female. The consensus was that the applicants (named Heidi and Howard) were equally competent, but the students liked Howard more. Men and women alike thought that Heidi was not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford University observed that “the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.” Heidi, an assertive and successful woman, flew in the face of stereotypes of nurturing, communal women and strong, assertive men. The result was that the students disliked her and admired Howard, who had the exact same credentials.
This study demonstrates a hard truth that may explain why so many women are hesitant to share their achievements and own their success: for women, success and likeability are negatively correlated. When female managers are forceful and assertive, as their job requires, they are seen as rude and socially inept. Carly Fiorina, the first woman to run a Fortune top 20 company, recalled being routinely referred to as “either a bimbo or a bitch.” We not only expect a woman to be more nurturing than a man; we expect her to be nurturing above all else, and when she defines herself first by another quality, such as ambition or assertiveness, we feel uncomfortable. In the workplace, this means that a woman who advocates for herself is likely to be seen as selfish, while a woman who helps others often doesn’t have her favor returned or compensated because she is expected to be communal in the first place. Studies have shown that women know this, and act accordingly: Harvard Business Review found that “men [rate] their performance 33% higher than equally performing women,” and when it comes time for employment or promotion, workers who rate their own performance highly and assert their good qualities are more likely to be hired or promoted. So, while a woman is doomed to stagnate in the workplace if she does not assert herself, she is rebuked as selfish and unlikeable if she does.
This “likeable or successful” phenomenon is present in politics as well as the workplace. A study at Harvard Kennedy University found that “voters are less likely to vote for female politicians when they perceive them as power-seeking, though male politicians are not penalized.” To both men and women participants, power-seeking men were viewed as competent and tough, while power-seeking women inspired moral outrage and contempt. Aside from the blatant examples of sexism at the highest levels of government (see Representative Ted Yoho’s remarks to AOC last year), some voter perceptions shift more subtly. Each time Hillary Clinton announced a run for office – in 2000 for the Senate, and in 2008 and 2016 for the presidency – her approval rating plummeted; no such phenomenon was observed for men. In 2016, Clinton was described as “flawed,” “disconnected,” “polarizing,” and “unlikeable” by critics who insisted that their view of her was uninfluenced by her gender and suggested Elizabeth Warren as a viable alternative. Four years later, Elizabeth Warren was running for president, and news pundits began comparing her to Clinton, deeming her too cold, too divisive, too shrill, too… unlikeable. The moment she declared her ambition for more power, critics turned on her; after all, a female senator is much less unnerving than a woman running for president.