Why Female Case Protagonists Matter
by Colleen Ammerman, Harvard Business School Gender Initiative
A robust body of experimental research indicates that seeing or hearing about women who have achieved professional success or attained leadership roles improves women’s self-perception and performance, countering stereotype threat, the “risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group” (Steele and Aronson 1995). Stereotype threat can cause people in the stereotyped group to perform below their actual ability.
For instance, in a 2005 study in which college students read biographical essays about successful women in various occupations prior to completing a series of math questions, women who read no biographies scored worse than men (McIntyre, Lord et al. 2005). Meanwhile, women who read one or two biographies performed better, but still worse than men, and women who read three biographies of successful women scored as well as men. The study’s lead author also conducted a similar study using essays about women who were successful architects, lawyers, surgeons, and inventors (McIntyre, Paulson et al. 2003). Women college students who read the essays scored higher on a math test than women who read essays about successful corporations, and scored as well as men.
Not only is academic performance influenced by the presence of female role models, so are self-perception and behavior. Female students who read a biography about a successful woman in an occupation they planned to enter rated themselves more highly on career-related characteristics like intelligence and competence, compared to women who read about male role models in their fields (Lockwood 2006). In a more recent study, women students were exposed to a portrait of a female leader (Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel), or to a portrait of Bill Clinton, or no portrait (Latu, Mast et al. 2013). Women in a room with a female leader portrait gave longer speeches and the quality of their speeches was rated more highly by themselves and by other participants. Women spoke less than men when in a room with a portrait of Bill Clinton or no portrait at all.
Moreover, leadership itself has traditionally been coded as masculine, and exposure to women in positions of authority has been shown to counter that stereotype. In an experiment conducted with women ages 17 to 62, participants exposed to photos of women leaders (e.g., CEOs, Supreme Court Justices) were more likely to associate women with leadership, using an implicit association test, than participants in a control group (Dasgupta and Asgari 2004).
Source: Harvard Business School Gender Initiative
HBS Gender Initiative’s Female Protagonist Collection
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