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Smile, attitude crucial for women in groups, sociologist finds

A Stanford University researcher has found that women are more effective within a task-oriented group if they smile and act nicely while trying to make a point.

Women may find they have to appease men's sense of being threatened in order to influence what the group decides, to get access to rewards and to achieve a "position of relative power," said Cecilia L. Ridgeway, professor of sociology.

However, this technique alone does not equip the same woman to achieve the authority to command a particular group's activities, Ridgeway told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held the week of Feb. 8 in Boston.

Other status characteristics, such as race, wealth, physical appearance and education, also influence the performance expectations other people develop about that woman. Smiling and acting nicely may perpetuate stereotypes about women, but Ridgeway said it may be the only successful strategy until societal attitudes change.

Ridgeway said that if women who participate in groups such as business groups, committees or juries present their contributions as an attempt to help the group rather than as a competitive bid for status, they can "counteract the governing effects of status characteristics."

"When women . . . accompany their task suggestion with positive social behaviors . . . they achieve high influence in the group," she said.

A woman can obtain relative power by indicating she won't challenge the underlying belief held by many men that women are less able, Ridgeway said.

For this appeasement technique to work, only the woman must change her behavior, Ridgeway said.

A second, more difficult solution needs the cooperation of both sexes: Expectations about a woman's contribution can be changed "by showing that the women, while lower in external status, are higher than the men on a valued skill."

Convincing all group members that a woman is capable also gives her the right to participate more actively and prevents backlash reactions against her assertiveness.

Since "women often lack the power or resources to force a change in men's expectations," Ridgeway said, she suggests that "an outside authority impose the changes on the group, such as an organization within which the group operates."

Besides expecting little competence from women, the power order that emerges in mixed gender groups evokes "legitimacy dynamics."

Since more men occupy valued status positions than do women, people conclude that men also will have higher status within a particular group. They grant men the right to influence the group but treat women's claims as deviant and of little weight, even embarrassing, Ridgeway said.

If other group members do not challenge this dynamic, it erodes women's self-esteem, and it turns the gender-based expectations about performance and the right for status into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stanford sociology Professor Joseph Berger, one of the developers of status characteristics theory, and David G. Wagner of the State University of New York argue in another paper prepared for the session that "many apparent gender differences are more accurately understood as status differences. . . . In circumstances where women have higher status than men, the behavior differences are reversed."

For example, women speakers make more eye contact when speaking to a man than vice versa on female-identified tasks, such as pattern sewing. Men make more eye contact than women when speaking on male-identified tasks, such as automotive oil changing or on gender- neutral tasks, such as vegetable gardening.

Women face a higher "burden of proof" upon entering a gender- neutral task discussion, Berger and Wagner argue, because "the dominant American cultural definition is that 'male' is higher status."


This story was written by Gabrielle Strobel, a science writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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