Misogyny and powerful women

Women in power attract more personal and more vitriolic criticism than do powerful men, argues author.

Labor Leadership Crisis Unfolds In Canberra
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave an impassioned response to the leader of the opposition for his repeated use of sexist language late last year [Getty Images]

How many dictionaries change their definition of a word in response to its use by a Prime Minister? My guess is not many. But this is precisely what happened after Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave an impassioned response to the leader of the opposition for his repeated use of sexist language late last year. Subsequently, Gillard’s speech was viewed by millions of people worldwide who were appalled by male attitudes and behaviour toward women in power.

In the aftermath of this event, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary updated its definition of the word “misogyny”, deciding that a modern understanding of this word would indeed imply “entrenched prejudice against women” as well as, or instead of, the old definition of pathological hatred of them.

The events leading up to this incident raise the question of why women in power attract more personal and more vitriolic criticism than do powerful men. Surely women who have succeeded in obtaining power have got there because of talent and a capacity for hard work. And these are desirable traits in a leader, aren’t they? Women who are in leadership roles are likely to have these characteristics in abundance, given that it is much harder for women to rise up through the hierarchy than it is for men. So why should they be vilified?

An obvious answer to this question is prejudice. But how are prejudices against powerful women formed? One response relates to the cultural baggage that we each carry around. Individuals are strongly affected by social custom and conditioning, and many of us never question the tenets that have guided us from infancy. Yet a society’s overt and covert rules about how each gender should behave can result in a loss of identity should we see others deviate from that code. Analogously we experience a loss of identity if we ourselves deviate from that code, and this loss acts as a kind of sanction ensuring the code is perpetuated.

Given this, men – and some women – may well be happier if they see men in higher-ranking positions, because this fits in with the type of behaviour dictated by social custom. The discomfort experienced by many when a woman does attain a powerful position may then be expressed in deep hostility – and yes, misogyny.

Covert cultural values are not only found across societies, but also within organisations, be they businesses and companies, public sector institutions, political parties or government departments. Gender differences in attitudes and practices within an organisation relate to its gender composition. 

“Negative attitudes toward women are likely to decline as the proportion of women in top
jobs grows.”

The more dominant is a particular group within an institution, the more likely is the gender identity of that group to predominate. And the more likely is that group to act as a gatekeeper, to ensure that new hires follow the dominant culture. Anyone who differs in an obvious way – such as through their gender – will not be looked on kindly. Indeed, the greater the sex-ratio in any group, the more likely is any minority newcomer to be perceived stereotypically.

What else might explain the disparagement of women in power? It is well known in the psychology literature that gender stereotypes are cued by gender categorisation. This can result in women being discriminated against in some roles but not in others. There is a perceived incongruity between the female roles of compassion and inclusiveness on the one hand, and decision-making and leadership on the other hand.

This results in two forms of prejudice. First, women are perceived less favourably than men as potential leaders. After all, they are supposed to be caring followers, aren’t they? So why do they want to take a leadership role? And second, if women do manage to obtain a position of leadership, they are then evaluated less favourably because they do not fit the prevailing views in the society of what is the appropriate behaviour for women. This ambivalence can make it harder for women to achieve positions of leadership.

Moreover, women who do obtain positions of power may elicit negative reactions, even while receiving some positive evaluation for achieving this role. Attitude researchers have shown that ambivalence can produce less consistency in expressions of an attitude across time, as well as a polarisation of reactions.

This mix of the positive and negative is inherent in the sexist and misogynist epithets often applied to powerful women such as Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher). (For a thorough documentation of what Prime Minister Julia Gillard has had to deal with, see here.)

I noted above that women may be less subject to disparagement in organisations in which there is already a high proportion of women. Thus women may fare better in institutions or firms in traditionally female areas. As well, there is evidence from economic studies showing that women-led companies appoint proportionately more female executives. Not only is this consistent with mentoring or the formation of female networks, it also suggests that opinions may alter in the future. Negative attitudes toward women are likely to decline as the proportion of women in top jobs grows. 

Beamen et al (2009), in an experimental study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, utilised random assignment of gender quotas across Indian village councils in order to see if having a female chief councillor affected public opinion towards female leaders. First-time women leaders were found to receive worse evaluations, and this was so in spite of outperforming male counterparts on many performance outcomes. Yet the study also found that exposure to female leaders over time was associated with a reduction in prejudice, and second-time female leaders were rated as for men. 

Was that result typical only for India? We have yet to see if this is the case in other countries.

Alison Booth is Professor of Economics at the Australian National University and an ANU Public Policy Fellow. She is the author of The Jingera Trilogy.