• July 28, 2014

How the 'Snow-Woman Effect' Slows Women's Progress

Balancing Act Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Enlarge Image
close Balancing Act Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

The percentage of college presidents who are women more than doubled in the 20 years between 1986 and 2006, according to the American Council on Education's most recent American College President Study of 2,148 colleges. That is the good news. The bad news is that women's progress has slowed in recent years. The other bad news is that only 63 percent of female presidents surveyed were married, compared with 89 percent of their male counterparts. "Twenty-four percent of women presidents are either divorced or were never married (excluding members of religious orders)," an ACE statement on the study said. "Only 7 percent of male presidents fall into these categories." The report does not mention the percentage who have children.

I applaud the strong women who have reached the top positions in their colleges and universities, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. I know that they face many challenges breaking into the male leadership culture, including walking the tightrope of being assertive while not being perceived as aggressive.

Often subtle discrimination is rooted in gender stereotypes—especially when it comes to the "leadership issue." Female candidates are purportedly passed up for promotions based on a conscious or unconscious belief that women do not have what it takes to lead men. The English reputedly have a test for that kind of leadership—"Who among you would kill the tiger if attacked?"

But if a woman displays the qualities of a tiger killer, she may be dismissed as too masculine. That paradox was the subject of a landmark 1989 Supreme Court case, Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins, which found that kind of evaluation to be discrimination. Ann Hopkins was turned down for a promotion to partnership on a split decision of male partners who evaluated her performance. A number of their evaluations sharply criticized her interpersonal skills and specifically called her too abrasive. Several of the evaluations on both sides made comments implying that Hopkins "was or had been acting masculine," and one partner advised her that "she could improve her chances for partnership by walking, talking, and dressing more femininely."

As the only female dean at the University of California at Berkeley for several years, I sat in on countless meetings where men held the floor. One day a female colleague made a presentation to a meeting of the deans and received a cursory, bordering on rude, response. Afterward, she asked me how she could have been more effective.

"Speak low and slowly, but smile frequently," I replied. This advice (which did help her next presentation) was based on my observation that women must adhere to a narrow band of behavior in order to be effective in mostly male settings. Women who speak too fast, or in too shrill a tone, are overlooked. Women who act in a highly assertive manner, which might be acceptable for men, are attended to, but not invited back. Women must be friendly, but they cannot be too friendly or a sexual connotation may be inferred. After meetings, women are frequently marginalized when they are left out of job-related social networking.

A survey of women in corporate leadership positions by Catalyst, an organization that works toward the advancement of women, found that 41 percent of respondents cited "exclusion from informal networks" as a barrier to their overall advancement. Navigating that male-dominated world can be disorienting and stressful.

It is not surprising that we still find few women at the top. More than 20 years ago, The Wall Street Journal used the phrase "glass ceiling" to describe the apparent barriers that prevent women from reaching the highest leadership positions. In 1995 the government's Glass Ceiling Commission reported that women held 45.7 percent of America's jobs and received more than half of the university master's degrees. Yet 95 percent of senior managers were men, and female managers' earnings were, on average, a scant 68 percent of their male counterparts'. A decade later, in 2005, women accounted for 46.5 percent of America's work force and represented less than 8 percent of its top managers (although at large Fortune 500 companies the figure is slightly higher). Female managers' earnings now average 72 percent of their male colleagues' wages. Since 1998, the figures have stagnated. Over all, the trajectory is not promising.

Women with children face additional problems in the workplace. They may have an especially difficult time participating in the job-related social networking that is often required to advance. In academe the socializing is not so likely to be sports talk and all-night boozing, but mothers may have to leave meetings that do not end by 5 p.m. in order to pick up children. Or they may be unable to attend job talks, receptions, or search-committee dinners because of child-care commitments.

It is usually an accumulation of small and large incidents that marginalize female administrators. I think of this as the "snow-woman effect." The layers of missed opportunities, family obligations, and small and large slights build up over the years, slowing their career progress compared with men.

Virgina Valian, in her insightful book, Why So Slow? suggests that, like interest on capital, disadvantages accrue and accumulate, ultimately resulting in large disparities in salary promotion and prestige for women. Her work describes the psychological and institutional ways in which all women are treated differently from birth.

For mothers, family constraints impede career progress in addition to the gender schemas that slow all women down. In most analyses of women's failure to break the glass ceiling, family issues are sidelined in favor of amorphous explanations of gender discrimination. Some note is given to the fact that women who leave to have children have a difficult time getting back on track, and occasionally a mention is made of elder care, since women, more than men, are sometimes called upon for extended care of failing parents. Indeed, women who make it past the make-or-break years and successfully raise families while excelling in their careers often face a new, equally daunting challenge in their 40s and 50s—caring for aging parents. In their study, "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps," Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce found that 24 percent of highly qualified women reported the demands of caring for elderly parents as a factor that pulled them away from their jobs.

Professional women also are far more likely than men to experience disruption stemming from divorce, which can affect their ability to perform for years. Likewise, growing families are unpredictable—troubled teens may need more attention than they did at an earlier age, and sick relatives may need extended care.

The lack of awareness about family restraints is perplexing since many studies have found that motherhood is the single most important factor in explaining the wage differential between men and women. Economic studies have found that mothers, over all, make 60 cents to the dollar that men earn, and that women who do not have children have wages similar to men.

In the university world as well as other professions, marriage and children appear to boost the careers of men and slow or stop those of women. Across the disciplines, but particularly in the sciences, the lack of female role models in top leadership positions is problematic. It is not just a problem for young women who aspire to the top but see few women ahead of them, it is a problem for those at the top as well.

A study of women doctors in academe found that "women who do persevere and advance face the extra challenge of 'surplus visibility.'" Because the higher they go, the fewer they are, women become ever more exceptional by their mere presence on the academic scene and visible to the point of inviting critical scrutiny. While that visibility can represent an opportunity, living in a "glass house" with no room for error is more often a problem.

Running a large organization like a college or university may be as perilous as tiger hunting. Doesn't it make sense that a group working cooperatively rather than competitively can more effectively kill the tiger and live to tell about it? And maybe a rethinking of the social networks to be more inclusive of parents with family commitments would encourage those parents to take on more leadership roles.

Mary Ann Mason is a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security. She writes regularly on work and family issues for our Balancing Act column, and invites readers to send in questions or personal concerns about those issues to careers@chronicle.com.

Comments

1. klblk - September 16, 2009 at 07:41 am

"The other bad news is that only 63 percent of female presidents surveyed were married, compared with 89 percent of their male counterparts."

Is this bad news for both men and women, women, married women, or married women with children?

2. krannertgsm - September 16, 2009 at 08:43 am

Is this headline correct?
Wow the 'Snow-Woman Effect' Slows Women's Progress; should it not be How the 'Snow-Woman Effect' Slows Women's Progress?

3. dank48 - September 16, 2009 at 10:13 am

I'm not clear what exactly Mason thinks needs to be done, or by whom. There's been progress. It's an imperfect world. Women and men face various challenges in this life, some of them the same, some of them, for any number of reasons, different. Progress has been made, but perfection has not been reached.

But, in the real world, a lot of things are a lot different from the way they were forty years ago. This seems to me a lot more significant than the relatively minor discrepancies between reality and some idealized vision of the City of Absolute Equality.

I wonder what Mason would find if she applied the standards she's used for college presidents to herself. No doubt she's realized a lot of goals and so on, but I also doubt she's attained every single objective. That doesn't constitute failure.

4. cchaden - September 16, 2009 at 11:00 am

Given women's higher rates of college attendance and graduation, this situation will inevitably look much different down the road.

5. madamesmartypants - September 16, 2009 at 11:11 am

dank48 - I think that Mason is arguing the following: that structural and institutional problems still exist, in both academia and in the business world, that tend to impede women from advancement into leadership positions; that if workplaces are committed to sexual equality, they should take into account family obligations, because the choice that women face now is either to give up their family obligations--which impede their careers--or have the kids and sacrifice advancement; and that even minor impediments, such as not being able to stay late to network, cumulatively result in sharp differences in pay, prestige and responsibility, which Mason terms the "snow-woman effect." She also notes that overtly sexist attitudes, such as viewing women as "too aggressive" when they are being assertive, also continue to undermine their advancement.

6. madamesmartypants - September 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

klblk - re: your comment "Is this bad news for both men and women, women, married women, or married women with children?" - I think it's bad news for women-- who's going to try for these positions if it means you can't have a life outside work?

Could also be bad for men, too, though. I read an article about how all-male leadership creates an competitive environment that increases unhealthy risk-taking--a kind of extreme brinkmanship. Having women on the board is thought to discourage such behavior. Apparently, the banks that took on the most bad loans and did the worst in the current financial crisis had few or no women on their boards. If you're interested, it was in the NYT a few weeks ago.

7. madamesmartypants - September 16, 2009 at 11:24 am

cchaden - I wondered about that, too. If most women only started getting MA's in significant numbers post-'70s, then perhaps the women with MAs are mostly younger women with less experience--hence why fewer are in the upper echelons. On the other hand, Mason's argument suggests that once they have kids, it doesn't really matter whether they have an MA or not--they'll get shut out because they're not involved in networking, etc.

8. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:18 pm

The problem is NOT that women do not have what it takes to lead men, but rather men do not have what it takes to follow women!

Admittedly, I am biased as the father of two successful women in
Academe, but I stand by my comment despite (or, more, correctly
because of) that fact...

Robert W. Lyons

9. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:19 pm

The problem is NOT that women do not have what it takes to lead men, but rather men do not have what it takes to follow women!

Admittedly, I am biased as the father of two successful women in
Academe, but I stand by my comment despite (or, more, correctly
because of) that fact...

Robert W. Lyons

10. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:19 pm

The problem is NOT that women do not have what it takes to lead men, but rather men do not have what it takes to follow women!

Admittedly, I am biased as the father of two successful women in
Academe, but I stand by my comment despite (or, more, correctly
because of) that fact...

Robert W. Lyons

11. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Correction to comment by me (Robert W. Lyons): the comma should come after correctly, not after more... Thank you!

12. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Correction to comment by me (Robert W. Lyons): the comma should come after correctly, not after more... Thank you!

13. boblyons66 - September 16, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Correction to comment by me (Robert W. Lyons): the comma should come after correctly, not after more... Thank you!

14. wenniger - September 16, 2009 at 01:09 pm

I believe Mason is clearly 100% correct in stating that this unconscious (or maybe conscious) bias against women leaders is unfortunate for everyone. It hurts us all, as demonstrated in this country's economic meltdown caused by too many testosterone-heavy risk-takers on Wall Street and in banks taking too much risk. If women were in charge, the risks they took would have been more moderate instead of devastating to all of us.

It is ironic that fewer women are unemployed as a result of this Great Recession because they already hold the lower-paying jobs. It is women leaders who will get us out of this mess, if only men can swallow their egos and let them lead! Clearly a leadership style that is cooperative and inclusive is more likely to produce new solutions than one that ignores half of our nation's intellectual resources.

15. mmullins - September 16, 2009 at 01:16 pm

There is no question that women face greater hurdles when it comes to traction in upper administrative roles in higher education.

Counter to Mary Ann Mason's advice that women behave in an ingratiating manner in a public forum, in my view women should comport themselves as human beings. All of humanity benefits when discriminatory behaviors are not tolerated, encouraged, or perpetuated.

16. saintmaur - September 16, 2009 at 01:52 pm

OTOH, at my progressive liberal arts college, the president, dean of students, head of advancement/development, dean of the library are all women, all but one married and with children. The Provost's position almost went to a woman last year as well. So...the devil is in the localities, perhaps.

17. icanhazphd - September 16, 2009 at 07:07 pm

I'm not sure if the "speak low and slowly" standard or the need to fear the perception of being perceived as aggressive, will hold true in coming years. The next generation of males seem to actually like a woman who can hold her own in a sword fight, given a cursory examination of popular female video game characters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Female_video_game_characters

Perhaps the attrition factor for males over 50 will finally cull the need to make like a Geisha in a meeting.

18. baker1655 - September 16, 2009 at 11:05 pm

In this day and age I don't think we can assume unmarried women college presidents are necessarily lacking a personal life. I understand what this statistic is meant to indicate, but maybe number of hours spent weekly with family/relationships/socially would be better measure to compare a gender gap here.

19. baker1655 - September 16, 2009 at 11:05 pm

In this day and age I don't think we can assume unmarried women college presidents are necessarily lacking a personal life. I understand what this statistic is meant to indicate, but maybe number of hours spent weekly with family/relationships/socially would be better measure to compare a gender gap here.

20. smwoodson - September 18, 2009 at 04:01 pm

Glass ceiling or sticky floor. That's how my very successful sister puts it.

21. spchronicle - September 18, 2009 at 04:11 pm

I find it seriously uninspiring that we still live in a reality where women have to care what anyone thinks of our 'demeanor' (feminine/not feminine?) or 'behavior' (aggressive/passive?) if we want to be professionally successful. If instead, we could expect to advance based on merit and ability, with only an expectation of basic human kindness and common sense, we might have more women in high leadership roles, but we'd also have fewer people (men and women) in high leadership roles they don't deserve, but acquired because they fit pre-(ill)conceived notions of what is considered socially 'acceptable'.

22. 11148451 - September 18, 2009 at 04:25 pm

Aren't the real losers here unmarried men? According to the author's data they are least likely to become college presidents.

A problem with using outcome data to prove a point is that the method offers up the result as proof for the relationship that is hypothesized. Can this always be assumed? Shouldn't standards of proof on important matters such as these require more rigorous analysis?





23. kevinoconnell - September 19, 2009 at 06:33 am

This is the usual dreary stuff from the feminist camp. Women are not making it in the workplace, so we should rewrite the entire social code to accomodate them. More positive discrimination, more programmes to 'educate' men on aspects of their behaviour in the workplace, more daycare; and then have the taxman come round and kneecap me to pay for it all. The main reason why women don't make it to the top is that young children need their mothers and most women know it. Take your pick. It's life.
Kevin O Connell
Dublin

24. smaxnar - September 20, 2009 at 10:18 am

dank48, your comments are specious at the least. Personal responsibility for the road not taken is a far cry from systemic failure.

kevinoconnell, give your ma a kiss and bless her for raising such a fine lad.

25. deehorner - September 23, 2009 at 09:21 pm

"More positive discrimination, more programmes to 'educate' men on aspects of their behaviour in the workplace, more daycare; and then have the taxman come round and kneecap me to pay for it all"

None of this appears in the article above. Have an agenda, do we?

26. femme - October 04, 2009 at 12:35 am

In addition to societal inequity, there is also the issue of the lack of understanding among men who do not realize the importance that a career holds to a woman. One of the worst ways a man can hurt a woman is to restrict her growth and development by stymieing her career - professional, academic or other highly prestigious accomplishments. For men there is the idea of masculinity - well for many women their career/accomplishments are their wo"manhood". If they are not accomplishing they are not women. Having a great career, advanced degrees, being recognized for notable accomplishments with higher pay, promotion and greater esteem/visibility are all of the key components that matter. In addition to being great mothers and having great families. But it is not possible without the cooperation and understanding This notion does not register with men.

27. femme - October 04, 2009 at 12:38 am

In addition to societal inequity, there is also the issue of the lack of understanding among men who do not realize the importance that a career holds to a woman. One of the worst ways a man can hurt a woman is to restrict her growth and development by stymieing her career - professional, academic or other highly prestigious accomplishments. For men there is the idea of masculinity - well for many women their career/accomplishments are their wo"manhood". If they are not accomplishing they are not women. Having a great career, advanced degrees, being recognized for notable accomplishments with higher pay, promotion and greater esteem/visibility are all of the key components that matter. In addition to being great mothers and having great families. But it is not possible for women (just as it is not possible for men to have great careers and great families) without mutual cooperation and understanding of what truly matters.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.