Following a fascinating conversation with Professor Shelley Correll, head of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, I was reflecting this morning on what she said about women being held to a higher standard of niceness than men … and whether this had any impact on the just-announced resignation of UK Cabinet Minister Maria Miller MP. Her resignation, somewhat forced onto her by screaming newspaper headlines and several colleagues in Westminster, follows an investigation into her expense claims and what is now being quoted over and over again as her 32-second apology which was labelled as “graceless”.

I am wondering if it was the expenses claim and the need to pay back certain monies OR… the fact that she was not contrite enough in her apology. I am somewhat suspending judgement as I don’t know the details, only those conveyed through the media which may not have been entirely neutral. It was Maria Miller who was in charge of two very controversial areas of reform: press regulation and gay marriage, both of which seemed to make her many enemies, enemies who now seemed very vocal in her hour of difficulty. The MPs in her own party who spoke out against her were the same ones who voted against Gay Marriage.

I am wondering, in the light of what Professor Correll shared in our video interview, if Maria Miller was being held to a higher standard of niceness than if a male Cabinet Minister had issued the same brief apology? Is she out because she was not contrite, or nice enough? There are so many other occasions where ranks are closed around government leaders by their colleagues but not in the case of this woman. I have watched the apology on the BBC website and it sounds straightforward, she does not sound arrogant but more likely nervous. Her supporters say she was trying not to cry. The atmosphere in the Westminster chamber is not one that is conducive to anything but direct lucid communication, not a place to make an emotional statement.

So do watch the interview … see what you think?

Transcript of conversation

Shelley Correll: This is another one of these really hard problems ….. the unconscious bias literature shows us that women are less likely to be perceived as competent than men are. One of the things a woman might do if she feels people aren’t seeing her is to promote herself a bit

Gina Lazenby:  we are told to toot our own horn!

SC: exactly.  .. And so what happens when they do that, it does raise their level of competence with which they are seen, so it really does help, but at the same time people do not like self-promoting women.

What happens is they see them as more competent but at the same time they like them less. We see this with women leaders as well. Enacting a leadership role requires women to act in a more assertive, competent, confident way. In doing so people often don’t like them. They see them as pushy, selfish or bossy, and not being very likable.   This comes about because one of our stereotypes about women is that we should be nice …….  we hold women to a higher standard of niceness than men.

Acting in a leadership role doesn’t look so nice to us when a woman does it but it looks perfectly fine when a man does it.  So there is a trade-off there when a woman looks confident and is self promoting – people don’t like her. If she backs off and acts more meek and mild they like her but don’t see her as being very competent.  And the problem is, to be effective, it is better to be seen as both competent and likable, and not have those be a trade off.

GL spoke about how reports published in the Harvard Business Review say that people now want leaders with empathy and warmth who are much nicer that previous versions ….

SC: I don’t think the changing way we view leaders is going to automatically benefit women. I think we are going to have to do more than just hope that that is going to take us somewhere.

GL: there are a lot of conversations out there following on from John Gerzema’s book about the traits people want in the modern ideal leader. 8 out of 10 traits are listed as feminine.

SC: Being empathetic is seen as being feminine and is also associated with other low status groups like ethnic minorities who are seen to be more empathetic, even if they are men, than their white counterparts. Again, this is what people say they want from leadership.

A group that is in power has the ability to redefine themselves in ways to maintain their position. I am not optimistic that this on its own will bring about higher representation of women leaders
The biggest gains that will be made is in reinforcing that when women are in leadership positions, it’s good for creativity, it’s good for team problem solving, it’s good for a company’s bottom line …. Those are the kind of things that are going to motivate firms to want to really go out and get more women. That is where the biggest attraction is.