Failure of Female Role Models Affects Beliefs about Women More Generally
High-profile women business leaders are often heralded in popular culture, media, and everyday discussions, signaling to other aspiring women leaders the possibility of success. CEO’s publicize their successful women executives who balance the various domains of their lives, podcasts ask women CEOs of the world “how do you do it all?,” and organizations position their high-profile women leaders as role models aspirants can look up to. In research as well, successful role models are regarded as one effective solution to increase minority representation in organizations and industries.
But, heralding individual women as exemplary role models warrants caution. What happens when one of these female role models fails in her pursuit of ambitious career goals? Being a consistently successful leader is challenging for anyone, and it may be particularly difficult for female leaders who must tread a fine line between the decisiveness and authority of their leadership role and norms about how women are supposed to act. Women leaders experience a host of negative interpersonal and career-related outcomes when they “step out of line” as women by being the assertive leaders they need to be. These norm violations can lead to dislike, social exclusion, and missed promotion opportunities, and may even cause some women leaders to leave their jobs. Given this precarious position, female role models may often serve as poignant examples of female career barriers as much as examples of female career success. What impact might such failures have on the female employees they inspire?
The 2016 Presidential Election offered one such context in which to evaluate the impact of role model failure. As a high-profile and powerful woman, Hillary Clinton embodied the critical tensions that arise from being a woman and being a leader. In a series of studies aimed at evaluating the effects of Clinton’s failed presidential bid on broader beliefs about women, we found that her failure negatively impacted people’s expectations about the likelihood that women business leaders will be promoted.
In our first study, we asked U.S. men and women to rate the “promotability” of male and female business leaders 12 days before and less than two days after Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. Prior to the election, our research participants did not rate the promotability of male and female business leaders differently. However, following the election, participants saw women business leaders as less promotable than before, while there was no change in the perceived promotability of male business leaders.
We then tested whether this pattern could be replicated, or if it was tied to the surprising 2016 election result. Seven months following the election, we asked another sample of U.S. men and women to rate the promotability of male and female business leaders. As before the election, there was again no difference between beliefs about the promotabilty of male and female leaders. However, when we reminded participants of Clinton’s failure, they again rated the male business leader as more promotable than the female leader. So, while the election result prompted a belief that female leaders are generally less promotable (i.e., a “Clinton Effect”), reminders of the election prompted a belief that male leaders have an advantage (i.e., a “Trump Effect”).
Importantly, Clinton’s loss did not affect people’s personal beliefs about the suitability of male and female leaders or their beliefs about the presence of the glass ceiling. Rather, only beliefs about other people’s leadership evaluations—those that would affect someone’s promotability—were affected. This pattern suggests that the failure of a high-profile female role model doesn’t necessarily affect our own beliefs about women’s suitability for leadership, but it leads us to assume that her failure will lead other people to view women as less promotable.
This research highlights the potential danger in putting individual female exemplars on a pedestal. Rather than celebrating a single female leader’s success as a token win for diversity, perhaps we should instead celebrate the many female leaders within truly diverse organizations.
For Further Reading:
Williams, M. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2016). The subtle suspension of backlash: A meta-analysis of penalties for women's implicit and explicit dominance behavior. Psychology Bulletin, 142(2), 165-197. doi:10.1037/bul0000039
Yates, M. S., & Okimoto, T. G. (2019). Changing beliefs about female leader advancement following the 2016 US Presidential election. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(4), 423-431.
Miriam S. Yates is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the AIBE Center for Gender Equality in the Workplace and a registered organizational psychologist. Tyler G. Okimoto is an Associate Professor in Management at the University of Queensland Business School.