Hidden Bias Against Female Bosses?

A behavior lab showed stunning results on how men and female bosses are viewed.

Dec. 4, 2007 — -- From CEOs to international leaders, when it comes to power positions, women today are making it to the top and experts say the corporate ladder is full of more female rising stars than ever before.

A recent " Wall Street Journal special series, "Women to Watch," found that there's a solid pipeline of women poised to take over in the next five to 10 years. But that road may prove awfully bumpy for many of them.

New York University professor Madeline Heilman says successful women in traditionally male-dominated roles and industries are regarded much more negatively than men who are similarly successful.

She helped us put her theory to the test in a special "GMA" Behavior Lab. We asked a dozen volunteers to read memos announcing the hiring of new executives at a fictitious company. One group read a memo about James, a highly competent, proven leader.

The second group read a memo about Andrea, and other than her gender, her bio was exactly the same as James. A third group was shown a different memo about Susan. Again her bio was the same as both James and Andrea, but it included an added section that described her as an understanding and nurturing person.

The results were stunning.

All of the volunteers who read the memo about James said they would be happy to work for him. They described him as professional and capable. One respondent said, "I feel like he could potentially help me get ahead. … I could learn a lot from him too."

But all those who read the memo about Andrea, the female boss with the same bio, had a much different reaction, and not one person wanted to work with her. They described her as strict, tough, mean, ruthless and stubborn.

Finally, it was fascinating to see what happened with Susan's memo. She's the equally qualified executive who was also described as caring and nurturing. The respondents were willing to work for her. They called her qualified, dynamic, successful and balanced. One volunteer said, "It's not only about being completely ambitious and driven, but a good mix of two."

The lesson for the female boss, according to Heilman, is that once a woman achieves a position of power, bearing some feminine traits can actually help take the edge off that very negative reaction to successful women.

There are a few basic things that every single woman can do starting today to help demonstrate her competence.

Competence is the key. To reach high levels of success, women must focus primarily on being perceived as competent. Prove you can do the job and get that promotion. Then, once you're there, demonstrating some traditionally female qualities — nurturing and compassionate, for example — can actually help you to succeed in your leadership role. And while you're succeeding, you can help change the culture and the code of conduct that puts these rules on women.

Find a mentor. Look for mentors across departments and divisions and not just women. A mistake is assuming a mentor is just someone you go to when you have to ask questions or seek advice, as opposed to someone you build a relationship with. And you should have more than one — this isn't dessert where only one is acceptable! Mentors get to know you up close and personal — your soft and hard skills, especially your competence. When positions open up, those mentors in key roles are more apt to say, "Why don't we consider her for the job?"

Find opportunities to showcase your smarts. You can do that by speaking up in meetings. We often want to avoid them and dread them because they can be oh-so-boring, but it's an ideal time and vehicle to showcase your smarts.

Join new groups. Connect with committees and internal affinity groups outside your department to connect with people in other divisions. This might be an internal women's group. It could be the group that organizes your company's toy drive for the holidays. Take an active role where, once again, you're demonstrating your competence. It's through those experiences and that exposure that people can see how much you have to offer.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on ABC's "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. Connect with her at www.womenforhire.com.