Where Are the Mean Women?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that inspired some spirited debate on my blog and LinkedIn page. It seemed to several of my commenters that I was unfairly picking on men. And indeed, I do focus on mean men in my blog posts and in my forthcoming book of the same title. So what gives? Where are the mean women? As I’ve discussed at length, mean men are often perceived as powerful, persuasive, competent, and in control. Their very meanness may in fact help them convince others that they deserve to be top dog. But does it work as well for women?

In 2006, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, asserted that then Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president. In a time when shouting down one’s opponents has become normative political behavior, why was Clinton singled out for being mean? Politicians have always used tactics like this to defame their opponents, but when the comments were picked up by the media, this case began to raise questions about a double standard. The problem wasn’t so much about anger or meanness per se, but that Clinton was being accused of behavior that wasn’t considered befitting a woman. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times categorized the issue in this way:

They are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies. . . . The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn’t speak out strongly against President Bush, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.

Clinton’s experience perfectly expresses the bind many female leaders find themselves in. Women are expected to be kinder and more modest than men and suffer if they fail to conform to this prescriptive stereotype. Groundbreaking studies by Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann, professors at Yale and Northwestern, respectively, confirm what many of us suspect: that while men may be perceived as better leaders because of mean behavior, the opposite is true for women.

Women are conditioned away from being mean, but men essentially get a free pass on displaying anger due to our own cultural biases. We see male anger as a natural response to objective, external circumstances. When women show anger in the workplace, it seems out of context, and thus we naturally presume it’s a product of her personality. Her anger is viewed as internally caused (“she’s an angry person”; “she’s out of control”) rather than externally instigated (“the situation was frustrating or unacceptable”).

The Brescoll/Uhlmann study examined the very real consequences of these biases. The expression of anger by men actually increased their potential to be seen as having higher status by others. Angry men were more likely to be seen as leaders. However, professional women who expressed anger were consistently assigned to a lower rung on the ladder and also earned lower wages. Angry women were seen as less competent than angry men and unemotional women.

Another study, by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford, found that men who expressed anger in professional settings were more likely to be hired than men who expressed sadness and were also given more status, power, and independence in their jobs. Unlike with men, a woman’s occupational rank (whether CEO or trainee) in no way influenced the judgements made about their behavior. Angry women were consistently seen as out of control.

These studies jibe with my personal experience researching and writing about the subject of mean behavior in the workplace. Examples of mean men abound, but try as I might, I had incredible difficulty finding examples of powerful women who exhibit the same set of traits. What I found was that women leaders were held to a distinct double standard. Men can get away with mean, but if women are to maintain their status in any social system (politics, organizational life, entrepreneurship, to name only three), then they may have to suppress some of their emotions in order to be seen as rational, lest they be perceived as less socially skilled, and therefore less hirable for jobs that require social-interaction skills than are men who behave identically.

And it’s not only about meanness: women who demonstrate assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness experience backlash and have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice versus competent and cold. If a woman shows anger, she is the ice queen, the ballbuster, the dragon lady, the bitch.

Experimental studies consistently find that, unlike men, when women try to negotiate greater compensation, they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation, they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they criticize, they are disliked. See a pattern here? The same behaviors that enhance a man’s status are the ones that make a woman less popular. In leadership roles, women may find themselves in a never-ending double bind of figuring out how to direct, command, and control their followers without appearing to do so.

So are women just better human beings, more prone to generosity and agreeableness than they are to getting ahead, making the deal, crushing the competition? The research suggests to me that while inherent goodness isn’t gendered, how we react to and reward the expression of mean traits reflects a deep gender bias in society. Would we have more mean women if we gave the same allowances for powerful women to express their anger? Maybe or maybe not. What we do know is that women are strongly conditioned away from mean, while men realize early on that mean can work to their advantage. As a society, we need to take a hard look at the behavior we reward and that which we punish, and the monsters we’re creating as we do so.