The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Glass Heads

Do Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin Embody Successful Women Held Back by Sexist Prejudice or Their Own Weaknesses?

In 1979, the New Wave band Blondie introduced us to the concept of a “heart of glass.” Followers of boxing have applied the terms “glass chin” and, to a lesser extent, “glass stomach” to certain fighters for years. But what about a “glass head?” Suppose a person has the guts, brains, and strength to climb up the most crowded and slippery ladder of success, only to have their craniums shatter from the rarefied altitude when they reach the top rung.

Scott Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management, presented the results of a study he conducted yesterday at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Chicago. The study asked male and female managers from different industries nationwide to rate themselves and request ratings from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. The study also asked subjects to predict how others would rate them.

The results found that female managers are three times as likely to underrate their bosses' opinions of their job performance as are their male counterparts. Women also tended to impose much more exemplary standards of performance upon themselves to justify praise, recognition, and rewards. They were more likely to focus on their shortcomings rather than their accomplishments. These trends were even more striking in women over fifty years of age.

Taylor believes his findings go a long way to explain why women often fail to rise to head companies as well as the well-documented wage disparity between men and women performing the same jobs. In other words, the “glass ceiling” that so many successful women complain about may be self-imposed and it really their own glass heads they hear cracking on their final pushes to the top.

Other management academics, while not ready to wholly embrace Taylor’s conclusions, agree his findings are intriguing and worthy of further study. Two highly influential American female politicians may already have provided case studies this week.

First, while traveling in Africa, a Congo student asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is over fifty) about a multibillion-dollar Chinese loan offer to Congo of which the World Bank disapproves. Specifically, he asked her, “What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton . . . on this situation?” As it turns out, the student meant to ask her what President Obama thought about matter. It is not clear whether he mixed-up the names or the translator made a mistake.

In any case, Clinton showed a rare flash of temper at the question and its implications.

“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she asked incredulously. Then she snapped, “My husband is not Secretary of State, I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.”

Numerous pundits have questioned whether Clinton might feel overshadowed and forgotten within the Obama Administration but this was the first time she ever showed any outward signs of frustration. The student later personally apologized to Clinton for his badly worded question and she told him not to worry about it. Still, her angry assumption that it represented disrespect for her authority suggests thin – and perhaps transparent – skin in her scalp region.

When you feel the need to flash your label of office to prove you are in charge, it is not a reassuring display of leadership.

Second, at the other end of the political spectrum, former Alaska Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (who is under fifty) raised eyebrows when she wrote the following on her Facebook page as her first published comments since leaving office.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Never mind that the nonpartisan group disagreed there was such a clause in any of the health care bills under consideration in Congress. For the purposes of this discussion, the more troubling aspect of Palin’s accusation is her systematic tendency to view those with whom she disagrees as villains out to attack her personally.

Consider this diatribe from her farewell speech.

“Some straight talk for some . . . in the media because another right protected for all of us is freedom of the press . . . Democracy depends on you and that is why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how ’bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quit makin’ things up . . . And one other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.”

Palin unquestionably has as much right as any contemporary politician to complain about savage press coverage. However, there is a huge difference in the press failing to show discretion about sensationalizing her family problems versus reporting untruths. And the suggestion they were dishonoring U.S. troops by criticizing her is jingoism combined with paranoia bordering on the delusional.

When you keep insisting malevolent forces thrust unfair labels upon you, once again it is not a reassuring display of leadership.

None of this proves or even suggests that sexism is not a significant and pervasive problem in U.S. society. However, it does seem possible that even the most competent and accomplished women might continue to blame their personal shortcomings on it long after they have proven themselves.

In many ways, Taylor’s findings are hardly shocking. If a woman encounters unfair evaluations of her performance and finds she must walk on water for others to consider her minimally competent throughout her career, why would she assume the environment has suddenly changed now that she is only one step away from grabbing the brass ring?

Yet leadership, by definition, means standing higher than the crowd. While “good old boy” support networks help ease the upward climb, the best leaders are usually self-made rather than anointed.

Every leader manifests their leadership in different ways. However, the styles chosen by Clinton (leadership by pugilism) and Palin (leadership through victimhood) seem questionable at best. These are women of enormous power and influence in America today. Each may still yet run for President, perhaps even against one another.

For them at least, “breaking through the glass ceiling” may be less about shattering through a conspiracy of prejudice arrayed against them and more about rising above their own prejudice that such a barrier even still exists for them. Neither option will be possible if both turn out to possess glass heads.

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