Ambitious Women Beware…

A Huffington Post article  caught my interest recently. I found it interesting not because I care about Kristen Stewart (indeed her portrayal of women is probably as bad for women as the media attack on her indiscretions), but because of its implications for the mistreatment of women at work.

The article describes a double standard that allows men to misbehave in ways that women cannot. It seems that people around the world (primarily girls and women) are endorsing and feeding what essentially amounts to bullying and harassment of Ms. Stewart. Her crime? She violated a key gender stereotype that women don’t cheat! This abuse draws an interesting parallel with research on sexual harassment against women. Contrary to popular belief, women are not sexually harassed by men because men cannot control their desire for sexually attractive women in the workplace. Rather, sexual harassment is a form of control through bullying. It is used most often against women who violate their gender-role stereotype.  Jennifer Berdahl  found that gender-role deviants (i.e., women who act like men or women who take on traditionally male jobs), are sexually harassed more than women who remain consistent with gender-role stereotypes. These gender-role deviations include things such as ambition, competitiveness, and drive.

What is worse, these attacks on women are not always overt. Cortina argues that attacks on women are becoming less obvious and more hidden. Whereas sexual harassment used to be a prominent form of control over women who step out-of-bounds, laws and policies that prevent sexual harassment have led to hidden forms of abuse. Instead of overt sexual harassment, women who violate their gender roles find themselves more often mistreated, ostracized, and otherwise excluded. Cortina and her colleagues found that incivility towards women is a modern-day manifestation of sexual harassment. This is a problem because it essentially means that sexual harassment has gone underground.

So what does all this have to do with the attack on Kristen Stewart? Well, for one thing, it seems that it is not only men who abuse women who violate their gender-role stereotypes. Other women seem to endorse and even participate in such mistreatment! Further, it seems that the buck doesn’t stop with bullying and harassment. Women who violate their gender-role stereotype may face disciplinary sanctions at work, including job loss. The implications do not bode well for even remotely ambitious women (unless their ambitions are to be nurses, teachers, or to have babies). It implies that not only are men more likely to control women’s unreasonable ambitions, but so too are other women who witness these ambitions.  Did the glass ceiling just get lower?

Of course, the treatment of Kristen Stewart is just one anecdotal example. My collaborators and I are currently investigating the question of whether witnesses are more likely to endorse the mistreatment of gender-role deviants – we hope we are wrong!

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