Mismatched Leader Prototypes and Conversations on Gender

Over a week ago, I attended a talk by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and listened to advice she gave on female leadership.  In response to a question on how to achieve greater parity for women in leadership positions, Senator Murkowski (off-the-record) expressed how frustrating it is that women feel the need to check-off every qualification box on a resume prior to applying for a position, whereas men appear to not, and statistically apply more often than women for positions, even with only a third of the specified “boxes” checked off.  Internalizing this idea of self-imposed barriers, I kept thinking about the implications of gender on access to opportunity throughout this past week.  Yesterday, when I went to a Women’s Congressional Staff Association networking conference, I further discussed this idea with respect to women’s fear of negotiating title changes and salaries, as well as aptitude for job-seeking.  This week’s post is dedicated to how implicit leadership prototypes affect staffers’ perceptions and career ambitions, both in general terms and from my personal experiences.

As I noted in my prior post, I am the only female intern in this summer’s cohort, which is unusual, especially given that I work within a female, Democrat Member’s office, and that the Staff Assistant (my supervisor), the Chief of Staff, and the Legislative Director are all women.  With that said, it has been an interesting experience for me, as due to my experience from last year, my coworkers have looked to me to answer questions on our responsibilities, instead asking our supervisor a hundred different questions.  Our supervisor is also very new to the office, which further complicates the dynamic, and has made me feel a bit awkward in these situations, since I worry about feeling like a ‘bossy woman,’ or as though I am taking over my supervisor’s role.

To give context and examples to how I’ve reflected on gender prototypes, last Thursday, my coworkers and I watched the floor’s live-streamed session as the House debated an exciting, contested bill.  During the floor debate, we would discuss each Members’ different arguments and their perceived effectiveness.  At one point, a Member yielded time for Speaker Pelosi to address the bill.  However, as we watched Speaker Pelosi, my coworker’s first remarks were not about the content of her speech, but rather what she was wearing.  They cracked jokes on how she looked like a “highlighter,” and how ridiculous her outfit was. Regardless of whether I agreed that her bright-neon dress reminded me of a highlighter, I wondered why they hadn’t talked about the content of her words, like we had for the previous speakers.  Finally, after they went on for a minute or so, I remarked (that regardless of one’s personal political affiliation) how troublesome it was when during the first debate of the 2016 election, that the New York Times’ front-page article talked about the ‘importance’ Hillary Clinton’s blue pantsuit, instead of what happened during the debate.

Once I spoke up, my coworkers froze, and one coworker proceeded to pull up pictures of outfits he ‘liked’ from Speaker Pelosi.  Another justified that he judges what everyone wears, since his family worked in the fashion industry; another agreed that he judges what everyone wears, including an ‘ugly tie’ that a different Member wore (yet never vocalized this opinion when that Member was on screen).  I have never called anyone out on ‘gender biases’ before; while I felt as though I was acting overly defensive, I thought to myself that if I had stayed quiet, I would be contributing to the larger implicit bias at hand.  Later that day, the work pace died down, and my coworkers engaged in a conversation on the finance industry.  After one coworker went on a monologue about the comradery of the “brotherhood” in the industry, a male Legislative Assistant who sits next to me (and who had been my boss last year) looked at me, then looked up and said “that’s sexist.”  Again, my coworkers froze.

These examples from my coworkers’ conversations help to contribute to a larger conversation on what happens when there is an incongruity between a leader and an implicit leader prototype.  Forsyth and Nye (2008) express how leader prototypes, while contingent on the context of the industry and culture, generally favor decisive, authoritative leaders.  Yet generally speaking, gender stereotypes infiltrate perceptions of leaders, viewing women as socially sensitive and deferential, and men as decisive and authoritative.  In the first example, Nancy Pelosi appears to be an implicit incongruity by nature of being a woman, which makes people more attentive to if she defies the status quo in any capacity, as opposed to if it were a male Speaker.  The other examples (from my position as the ‘experienced’ intern and the “brotherhood” conversation) illustrate congruity with the general leader prototype as biased by gender, and further perpetuate how gender implicitly and inequitably affects perceived opportunity and ability to lead.

Briefly reflecting on the conference I went to yesterday, the conversations on women’s hesitation for negotiation or for a job opening also represent the influence of implicit leadership theories.  For example, asking for a raise is seen as an assertive, goal-oriented, and dominant behavior, which correlates more with ‘masculine’ qualities than it does with ‘feminine’ ones.  Women’s drawbacks or hesitations to ask for promotions or raises serve as potentially mismatched ILT’s, biased by stereotypes on the way women assert themselves in the workplace.