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In August 2000 I shared with my students the front page of a New Zealand newspaper that bore the headline "Clean Sweep for Women." The article beneath (Peters, 2000) went on to explain that, with the most recent high-level appointment, all of the highest-level jobs in that country would be held by women. A woman, Helen Clark, was the Prime Minister. A woman, Jenny Shipley, was the Leader of the Opposition. Another woman, Dame Sian Elias, was the Chief Justice and another, Margaret Wilson, the Attorney General. Furthermore, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the nation's largest company, Telecom, was a woman, Theresa Gattung. And the most recent appointment, to the position of Governor General, was yet another woman, Dame Silvia Cartwright.
My students thought perhaps that the friend who had mailed me the newspaper was playing a joke on me by constructing a false front page. Some of the more geographically challenged even seemed to wonder if there really was such a country as New Zealand, or if I was trying to fool them with this improbable headline. Most were in agreement, however, that leadership is so closely associated with men that "a clean sweep for men" would not be thought worthy of headlines in any country.
There are many reasons why it is difficult to imagine a world in which women's leadership is considered unremarkable. There is clear evidence of occupational sex segregation in all parts of the world (e.g., United Nations, 2000). Moreover, as noted by Carli and Eagly (this issue), women are still scarce in the higher levels of public leadership. Clearly, when they look to powerful positions, women have few role models of their own sex, whereas men have many such role models. Some research suggests that in many contexts women feel less comfortable than men do with notions of power and leadership that involve hierarchy (Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, this issue; Eagly, Karau, Miner, & Johnson, 1994; Miller & Cummins, 1992). Yet positions of recognized leadership in Western cultures almost inescapably involve an element of hierarchy. If women are not simply to cede the running of most institutions to men, they must be willing to take on positions that come with a certain amount of power over other people.
Perceptions of Gender and Power
If women feel discomfort with hierarchical power and leadership, such discomfort is not surprising. Gender stereotypes prescribe that toughness, assertiveness, and the competent exertion of power are masculine (Heilman, this issue; Schein, this issue); the popular media often treat femininity and power as contradictory (see, for example, Tousignant, 1995); and negative reactions to women in positions of visible authority are common (Siskind & Kearns, 1997).
The popular media treatment of powerful women often features seemingly irrational, contradictory criticisms. A woman leader who is perceived as tough and focused (Janet Reno, Margaret Thatcher) is lampooned mercilessly as unfeminine; one who shows emotion or is perceived as compassionate (Pat Schroeder) is criticized for being too soft. When Elizabeth Dole tried to walk the narrow line between these images during her campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination, her caution became so palpable that journalists derided her lack of spontaneity, "tightly wound efficiency," and "penchant for perfection" (Reed, 1999, p. 28). Often, frustratingly, a woman in a position of public power is said to be both too hard and too soft. Hillary Clinton is criticized for being too politically ambitious and unlike "ordinary" women. She is also castigated, often by the same critic in the next breath, for the traditionally feminine behavior of "standing by her man." Interestingly, she too has been the subject of harsh judgments because of her caution and reluctance to be spontaneous (e.g., Morning Edition, 2000).
A wealth of psychological literature shows that women who hold powerful positions often find themselves in a double bind. Carli (this issue) reviews literature showing that women who act in highly assertive, confident, or competent ways sometimes find that their ability to influence others, particularly males, is reduced. Moreover, she notes, people respond with dislike, hostility, and rejection to such assertive women, presumably because these women are violating prescriptive norms for gender-appropriate behavior. Carli notes that research shows women can reduce resistance to their influence by being careful to display the "feminine" virtues of warmth and collaborative orientation. Being perceived as warm and likeable makes women more influential and, indeed, appears essential for women trying to wield influence.
The current research was developed to determine the extent to which young women considering powerful future roles are aware of and affected by these considerations. How do they apprehend the double bind, the contradictory expectations, faced by women in powerful positions? And how do they tailor their own expectations, plan their own futures, to take these difficulties into account? Do they, in fact, worry more about the implications of such positions than their male counterparts do?
In an initial attempt to answer these questions, a sample of Virginia under-graduate students was asked to respond to a largely open-ended questionnaire about power. The section of the questionnaire that focused on respondents' visions of themselves as potentially powerful people was examined to determine the degree to which women and men in the sample anticipated problems with relationships as a source of difficulty with powerful roles (Lips, 2000). Results showed that the women were less optimistic than the men about achieving powerful positions and also rated the roles as less positive than men did. These findings emerged most clearly when students were imagining themselves in future political leadership roles. Furthermore, the open-ended responses revealed that women were significantly more likely than men to anticipate relationship problems with the role of political leader.
This finding provides an indication that young U.S. women in college, who are more likely than other young women to be able to enter professional positions that will involve leadership, do have doubts about how they will fill these powerful roles. In particular, it suggests that young women are sensitive to the contradictory requirements embedded for women in such positions and that they are aware that they will have to be liked and …