In Brief

Women in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering and finance, face a difficult hurdle, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 3): If they succeed, their co-workers, both male and female, may unfairly see them as unsociable and difficult to work with.

However, women who excel in careers seen as stereotypically female, such as employee-assistance managers and educators, do not face similar censure, says study co-author Madeline Heilman, PhD, professor of psychology at New York University.

"Success is OK for a woman if it's in an area that is not [seen as] off limits to them," Heilman notes. "What we are seeing is a reaction to their violation of stereotyped norms."

The researchers discovered this effect by asking 48 undergraduates to read biographical materials from three fictional employees at an aircraft engineering company--a job most participants characterized as masculine in a pilot study.

Participants perused materials on the educational history and career trajectory of fictional male and female employees. However, the gender of the characters was randomized so that half of the students thought employee A was a man, and employee B a woman, while the other students thought the reverse.

Additionally, half of the students learned that the employees received stellar evaluations at their last review, while the success of the candidates was not stated in the other condition.

Students were then asked to rate the competence of the employees as well as their likability. Also, they were asked to apply adjectives to each person, such as abrasive, accommodating and pushy.

The researchers found that, when the person's performance was ambiguous, the students rated the male employee as competent and the female employee as floundering, but both were seen as likable. However, when it was clear the female employee performed well in her position, the students ranked her competence as high, but her likability score dropped. Meanwhile, her successful male counterpart was seen as more pleasant as his competence increased.

"The successful women were characterized as more selfish, manipulative and untrustworthy--your typical constellation of 'bitchy' characteristics," says Heilman.

In a second study, the researchers repeated this experiment, but varied the job titles of the employees. Again, women succeeding in a stereotypically male career--working in the financial planning division of a human resources office--were viewed as unpleasant. However, the effect was not observed for women excelling in the employee-assistance division, a job pilot study participants considered nurturing and appropriate for women.

These findings suggest that people, both male and female, penalize women for success--a tendency that may limit women's progress in traditionally male fields, says Heilman. However, future studies are needed to replicate these laboratory findings in the workplace, she notes.