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Blog: Navigating Gender Biases

How Ambitious Women Might Mitigate Backlash by Desiring Status (in addition to power)


Professor Sonya Mishra

In the realm of academia, certain scholars embark on research journeys propelled by personal experiences and a fervent desire for societal change. Professor Sonya Mishra, Assistant Professor at the Tuck School of Business, exemplifies this phenomenon of research as “me-search” through her insightful work on gender dynamics in the workplace.

After obtaining her finance degree from Georgetown and beginning her career in banking, Mishra found herself immersed in environments characterized with gender bias. Despite her longstanding interest in financial markets, she found herself on the receiving end of gender inequality: having to mold herself to fit in, while also receiving less recognition – and less pay – than her equally-performing male counterparts. These experiences motivated her to better understand how gender bias manifests in the workplace, but importantly, how women could strategically navigate these environments. Although Mishra felt that organizations should primarily be responsible for addressing workplace gender inequalities, she simultaneously hoped that researching strategies for women to combat gender bias could empower her, as well as other women.

Mishra’s experiences with gender bias led her to leave banking, which led her to work as a professional dating coach for female clients in New York City. Unexpectedly, this job further motivated Mishra to investigate how women could navigate workplaces rife with gender bias, given her many female clients discussed their experiences of gender bias with her.  This led to Mishra to pursue a career in academia, beginning with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where her work explored gender and hierarchy in the workplace, and ultimately to Tuck.

In her recent paper, titled “The mitigating effect of desiring status on social backlash against ambitious women,” co-authored with Laura J. Kray of UC Berkeley, and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Mishra investigates the complex interplay of gender, power, and status within organizations. Although prior research has shown that power-seeking women (i.e., women who wish to possess control over resources) incur likability penalties known as backlash, Mishra wondered how women’s desires for status (i.e., their desire to be respected in the eyes of others) impacted their likelihood of incurring backlash. The distinction between power and status is important. Although both of these constructs are often highly correlated in actual organizations, Mishra felt that status-seeking was more aligned with feminine stereotypes (the idea that women are expected to be warm, communal, and other-oriented) than power-seeking. This is because status lies in the eyes of the beholder, making high-status individuals more likely to pay attention to the needs of others in order to maintain their own high status. As a result, Mishra felt that women who wanted to get promoted might be able to emphasize their desires for status (versus power) and avoid social penalties, even if the position they are striving for has both power and status..

Her paper begins by examining the prevailing gender stereotypes that underpin societal expectations of leadership behavior. Drawing from extensive literature, Mishra and her co-author discuss backlash power-seeking women, citing how the simple act of wanting power is considered to be at odds with society’s stereotypes about women. Backlash often manifests as women being labelled “unlikable,” which is important given prior research finds that women (but not men) who are deemed unlikable are also seen as less hireable and less likely to receive promotions.

The first of five studies tested Mishra’s hunch of whether status-seeking was considered more “feminine” than power-seeking. Two hundred and three participants assessed gender-ambiguous hypothetical targets who were described to desire either power or status. Participants then rated the extent to which each target could be described using feminine stereotypes or masculine stereotypes. Results supported the hypothesis, indicating that status-seeking was perceived as more congruent with feminine norms than power-seeking.

Building on these results, the second study, comprising 243 undergraduate students from a highly-ranked public West Coast university, examined whether women faced less backlash than men when desiring status rather than power. To get at this difference, participants evaluated hypothetical job candidates who varied in the extent to which their behavior revealed a desire for power or for status. The findings showed that women who were depicted as desiring status were considered less susceptible to backlash compared to women depicted as desiring power, perhaps because, as showed in Study 1, status-seeking is more congruent with feminine norms than power-seeking is.

Three further studies explored how desires for power and status interact to influence social backlash and perceived leadership fit in women and men. Evidence from over 1,200 participants – including MBA students and working professionals – found that for women, higher power motives were associated with more social backlash, but this relationship became much weaker when women also had high status motives. However, for men, the extent to which they desired power and status did not differently predict perceptions of them.

Through these studies, Mishra and her co-author unpack the differential impact of motives for power and for status on perceptions of women and men. The research reveals that women who aspire to status are less likely to incur social backlash than women who aspire to power because status (versus power) is more congruent with prevailing gender stereotypes about women. Importantly, women who simultaneously seek both status and power are seen as highly leaderlike, but also less likely to incur backlash.

The implications of these findings are profound, offering new insights into the mechanisms through which gender biases manifest – and, even more importantly, can be avoided – within organizational contexts. By better understanding entrenched stereotypes and highlighting the potential benefits of status-seeking behavior for women, Mishra’s research highlights a path by which women can navigate the rocky terrain of prevailing gender stereotypes.

In an era where gender biases continue to permeate professional spheres, Professor Mishra’s research serves as a beacon of enlightenment and offers guidance. By unravelling the complexities of gender dynamics and offering evidence-based strategies, she hopes to empower women who seek out strategies for navigating workplaces that are entrenched in bias.