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In Some Jobs, Past Achievements May Work Against Female Workers


Over the course of the last few decades, new opportunities have opened up for women. More women are accumulating high academic honors and also professional honors. There is disturbing new evidence, however, that these accomplishments might not always be seen in a positive light. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us each week, and he's here to talk about this. Shankar, this seems puzzling. How can accomplishments not be seen in a positive way?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Yeah, it does seem counterintuitive, David, which is why I did a double-take when I saw this research. This is by Ena Inesi and Daniel Cable at the London Business School. They got their hands on how 200 commanders in the U.S. military were carrying out performance evaluations. Now, it won't surprise you to learn that most of these commanders are men. But increasingly, however, these commanders are supervising subordinates who are both men and women. The researchers also conducted personality tests on the commanders. And Inesi told me she found something curious when it came to the performance evaluations of certain commanders and their female subordinates. Here she is.

ENA INESI: The greater your past accomplishments, the lower your current performance evaluations if you're a female subordinate, but not if you're a male subordinate. And, of course, this is only happening when being evaluated by certain types of evaluators - those evaluators who really want to maintain the gender hierarchy as it is, with men on the top and women on the bottom.

GREENE: So, Shankar, important to note here we're only looking at certain types of evaluators. These are people who already are dead-set on keeping the gender balance where it is. They actually don't want women to be in higher positions.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So these are people who have explicitly traditional views on gender roles and gender hierarchies. One problem with the study design that I should mention, David, is that it doesn't tell us how the women were actually performing. We know the women had stellar resumes, but it doesn't say how they were actually doing their jobs.

GREENE: OK, so we don't know the work that was actually earning these reviews.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So Inesi and Cable decided to conduct a laboratory experiment to test that question. They recruited volunteers and gave them the same personality test and they tested how strongly these people wanted to maintain gender hierarchies. And then they asked them to play the role supervisors and evaluate subordinates who had resumes and who had performance information and so on. And they found again that for men with traditional views on gender, the more accomplished a woman was, the more competent she was, the worse her performance evaluation became. This was not happening when the supervisors were evaluating men. In those cases, the performance evaluations were stellar. Inesi told me this is dispiriting because for many women, they've long felt that having competence, that demonstrating competence and amassing these strong credentials was one way to overcome barriers. Here she is.

INESI: A lot of women say, you know what I'm going to do? I'll show clear evidence on my CV, my resume, that I am competent. I'm going to get a high degree. I'm going to go to a great school. I'm going to get - do wonderfully in my job, and anybody who sees that can never doubt that I'm highly competent. And what we're showing here is that down the line, the knowledge of this past competence can actually come back to haunt these women.

GREENE: It seems worth pointing out, Shankar, we're dealing with a very narrow scenario here, but a really important one. Men who want to maintain sort of the traditional balance between men and women in power seem, in these cases, to be looking at women who have really impressive resumes actually trying to push them back. I mean, are they feeling threatened?

VEDANTAM: It would seem like feeling threatened is the most plausible way to explain these results. It's only happening when the subordinate is a woman, and it's only happening when the woman demonstrates the kind of competence that suggests that one day she might rise up and become a supervisor or a commander.

Now, it's possible this is only happening in very traditional, male-dominated institutions. The military has traditionally been male-dominated. It might not be happening across the country in different institutions. Inesi actually thinks that education might be the key here. She thinks that this might be happening at an unconscious level. These men might not realize that they're penalizing women for being so good. And, of course, it's also the question of accountability - if good people are getting punished, obviously now it's the institution's responsibility to fix the problem.

GREENE: Shankar, interesting stuff as always. Thanks a lot.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam regularly comes by to talk to us about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter @humanbrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.