Women Are Already Undermining Each Other As Teens

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Men far outnumber women in positions of power, but we know that's not only because of men's biases; women also tend to say they prefer men in those roles. A new report suggests this attitude begins much earlier in our lives than we'd thought — and that we're not even aware of it when it's happening.

The report, from Harvard's Making Caring Common project, surveyed approximately 19,800 middle and high school students, 17,000 of whom were from the U.S. All the students were told their school's principal was giving more authority to a student council, and they were asked whether they agreed with the principal's decision — based on who was leading said council. The researchers wanted to know if the student council leaders' gender or race would affect the students' responses, and whether each respondent's own gender or race would be a factor in that student's opinion.

Results showed that our unconscious biases are extremely obvious, even in those tender teen years. Overall, respondents were most likely to support empowering the student council when it was led by white boys, and least likely to support a student council led by white girls. In particular, both boys and girls showed more support for boys than girls as leaders.

But in a series of a smaller surveys, the researchers found that the majority of both boys and girls had no preference for political leaders' genders when asked directly, although 8% of girls (compared to only 4% of boys) said that girls are better leaders. Girls were just as likely as boys to think they'd grow up to be effective leaders themselves. So, girls didn't show bias against other girls explicitly; the attitude only showed up implicitly, when they weren't directly told that gender was a factor.

The problem isn't as simple as girls growing up with bias — it's that girls and boys grow up with biases they aren't even aware of. This, according to the report's authors, creates "an invisible barrier to leadership."

As the authors point out, these results are consistent with past research suggesting that "girls frequently 'do the work' of enforcing traditional gender roles and norms." It's a pattern that appears to persist into adulthood: In a Gallup poll from last year, both women and men were more likely to prefer a male boss over a female one. Still, 25% of women preferred a female boss, compared to just 14% of men.

Of course, deeply held biases like these are reinforced in many ways. In interviews with female participants, the researchers found that both low self-esteem and high competitiveness with other girls fueled these beliefs. The authors also point out that examples set by girls in the media (and by our parents) play additional, large roles in the formation of our opinions about gender, whether we're aware of that influence or not.

It's worth noting that the respondents who were aware that gender discrimination existed in their schools were less likely to show biases. So, the best thing we can do to help girls help other girls is to keep talking about those biases — especially the ones we're not proud of.

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