The Slate Gist

Positions of Power

How female ambition is shaped.

Ask a band of 8-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, and chances are you’ll hear the word famous. According to psychiatrist Anna Fels, author of Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, developmental studies of boys and girls show that as children, both sexes have remarkably similar desires for achievement. Both wish for accomplishment requiring work or skill; both desire recognition and honor. But fast-forward 20 or more years, and the reality looks different than the expectations. According to the October issue of Fortune, which highlights “The 50 Most Powerful Women in Business,” women account for 35 percent of MBAs but only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Women now make up 16 percent of congressional seats—and 0 percent of U.S. presidents. So, what happens to the grand ambitions of girlhood?

There are three possible answers. The first is that innate differences between the sexes mean that women either don’t seek high-risk jobs or don’t perform as well at them as men do; many conservatives, for example, have seized on social science studies that suggest women demonstrate an aversion to risk-taking. The second is that conscious discrimination still exists—that sexism is alive and well in the workplace. In 1998, for example, Mitsubishi paid $34 million to female workers who claimed the company had allowed employees and managers to sexually harass them at its plant in Normal, Ill. The third is that, even though formal barriers to women’s workplace advancement have been dismantled, unconscious bias continues to interfere, influencing, for example, awards and honors. Recently, the transsexual neuroscientist Ben Barres, who has worked as both a woman and a man in science, noted that he is treated with more respect and interrupted less frequently now that he is a man. (After one talk, a faculty member was overheard saying, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”) And, of course, unconscious bias may be what accounts for the fact that women still do the majority of housework and child-rearing, making it harder for them to compete effectively in the workplace.

Whatever the reality of innate gender differences may prove to be—and we still don’t understand very much about it—the presence of unconscious bias has been amply demonstrated. One widely cited study showed that when applying for a research grant, women need to be 2.5 times more productive than men to be judged equally competent. The famous “McKay” study asked subjects to rank comparable academic papers by John T. McKay or Joan T. McKay; the “Joan” papers were ranked about one point lower on a five-point scale than the papers by “John.” And since the arrival of “blind” orchestra auditions, in which candidates are evaluated from behind a screen, the percentage of women hired by the top five U.S. orchestras has risen from less than 5 percent to 34 percent.

What is pernicious about unconscious bias is not only that it creates specific career obstacles—say, being passed over for a promotion or losing out on a fellowship—but that it has subtler and more far-reaching consequences: It erodes the foundation upon which achievement is built—ambition itself. Ambition depends on a host of factors: confidence, actual skill, and the fuel of external recognition. Studiesincreasingly show that bias corrupts each of these in turn. In doing so, it doesn’t just bar a woman from the corner office, it causes her to take herself out of the running. By the time girls become adults, their ambitions have changed—because they have changed.

Ambition is a complex internal drive, and it relies heavily on a belief in one’s own potential. “In order to have high aspirations, you have to have a sense of your own competence,” says Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Cornell who studies the development of aspirations. Correll has found that, in the presence of a stereotype that men are better,women tend to underrate their own performance, while men overrate their own, regardless of demonstrated ability. “We find that if you compare boys and girls, or men and women, with the same grades in math classes, and the exact same scores on standardized math tests, boys think they are better than girls,” she notes.

To better understand this phenomenon, Correll devised a study in which male and female undergraduates were told they were “pre-testing” a new set of graduate admissions exams. Half the subjects were told that males had more ability on this test; half were told there was no relationship between gender and ability. (The test was devised in such a way that it was impossible to arrive at the correct answers.) All subjects were given the same score. Correll found that men exposed to the belief that males were superior rated their abilities as higher and expressed greater goals for future related activities; women in this group rated their ability as lower and expressed lower goals. Thus, exposure to a generalization about one’s group changes the way one interprets one’s own ability—and in turn shapes one’s goals for the future. These effects, says Correll, “cumulate over women’s lives and result in dramatically different outcomes for men and women.”

Bias is also shown to shape ability itself. Robert Rosenthal, a psychologist at UC-Riverside *, randomly assigned children to different classes, and then told half the classrooms’ teachers they had gifted classes and the other half that their students were average. At the end of the year, the “gifted” students scored higher on IQ tests. In other words, if others perceive you as talented, you become more talented. If you are perceived as less able, your ability shrinks. Meanwhile, studies of what psychologists call “stereotype threat” demonstrate that awareness of negative stereotypes about one’s group diminishes performance. Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, conducted a study in which undergraduates were asked to memorize words while doing math; one group was told this was a problem-solving exercise, the other, that this was a test comparing men and women. Women’s performance suffered only when they believed they were being compared to men—this prompted the stereotype that men are better in math.Another study examined how stereotype threat affected Asian-American women’s performance on math tasks. When subjects were asked questions related to Asian identity before taking the test (prompting the stereotype that Asians are good at math), their performance went up. When asked questions related to gender (prompting the stereotype that women are bad at math), their performance went down.

Ambition also depends on recognition. While we like to think of ourselves as unaffected by others’ assessments, anyone who’s experienced the boosting effect of a sincere compliment knows this isn’t true.Notes Fels in Necessary Dreams, studies by psychologists such as Jerome Kagan, Carol Dweck, and Howard Gardner have shown that being recognized enhances learning, motivation, productivity, and self-esteem. As Fels notes, “we sustain effort on projects that maximize present or future affirmation.” Recognition, then, is its own perpetual-motion device: It increases drive, which increases achievement, which leads to more recognition. But if, as the study cited above shows, a woman must be 2.5 times as productive to be judged equally competent, she receives that much less recognition for equal productivity—leaving her out of the cycle of recognition and reward.

Like an immune disorder, bias attacks from the inside, compromising self-perception and actual ability. It also attacks from the outside, isolating the individual from proper rewards. There are, however, a few silver linings. First, according to Fels, given the right encouragement, ambition can blossom at any time. When individuals experience a burst of achievement or recognition later in life, the full force of childhood ambition seems to return. Second, many of these studies suggest that bias’ effects on performance and self-perception are, like a stain, fairly responsive to spot treatment. In Schmader’s word-memorization study, a third group was told that exposure to stereotypes might lead women to underperform. In this group, the women and men scored equally well, suggesting that awareness of bias may mitigate its effect. Correll recommends that institutions acknowledge that while bias may exist “out there,” this particular organization is a safe place, and provide messages about all individuals’ potential—”from the top down.”

Transparency helps, too: Where there are clear methods of evaluation, women do well. The October issue of Fortune looks at three large American companies with many women at the top and finds that each relies on measurable results to determine advancement, including “empirical standards, clear goals, and frequent reviews.” Empirical standards, frequent reviews—sound familiar? Schools do the same thing. In counties around the country, women now account for the majority of valedictorians.

Correction, Nov. 30, 2006: This article originally misidentified Robert Rosenthal as a sociologist at UCLA. In fact, he is a social psychologist at UC-Riverside. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)