3. The psychologist L.A. Rudman has proposed the following answer: people are (often unwittingly) motivated to maintain gender hierarchies, by applying social penalties to women who compete for, or otherwise threaten to advance to, high-status, masculine-coded positions. This “status incongruity hypothesis” is consistent with the results of the previous study, and helps to explain them. In a 2012 study citing it, among other work by Heilman, Rudman and her collaborators showed that the effect is mediated by what is known as the “social dominance penalty,” where women in such positions who are agentic (i.e., competent, confident, assertive) are perceived as extreme in masculine-coded traits like being arrogant and aggressive. They are often described as “ballbreakers” and “castrating bitches.” (Sound familiar?)
These also happen to be verboten traits for women (as Rudman et. al. confirmed experimentally). So agentic women competing with men for male-dominated roles are doubly likely to be punished and rejected in light of these mechanisms. They are perceived as having more of the qualities they are less permitted to have than their identically-described male counterparts (described, again, using the same textual stimuli, such as letters of recommendation with the names switched).
The explanation Rudman offers for the social dominance penalty was further confirmed by the following, fascinating result: it could be augmented under a “high threat” condition where, at the beginning of the experiment, participants read an article called “America in Decline,” which included the following paragraph:
These days, many people in the United States feel disappointed with the nation’s condition. Whether it stems from the economic meltdown and persistent high rates of unemployment, fatigue from fighting protracted wars in the Middle East that have cost America dearly in blood and treasure, or general anxieties regarding global and technological changes that the government seems unable to leverage to their advantage, Americans are deeply dissatisfied. Many citizens feel that the country has reached a low point in terms of social, economic, and political factors.
In this condition, agentic women who aspired to high-powered positions were significantly less liked and more often turned down for a promotion than in the “low threat” and control conditions.