"One of the reasons why there aren't as many women at the
top is perhaps men at the top tend to be benevolent sexists who tend to see
women as people who should be shielded from danger and risks," says Desai. "They
are probably thinking of women as fragile beings who need to be taken care of, that
want to stay at home and raise kids and don't want to take risks and move to
Desai notes that so many of the attitudes her work unveils
are of an "unconscious nature," which makes beating them back particularly
difficult. She says male leaders may think they are elevating women, not stifling
"You think of women in a very positive light, you tend to
put them on a pedestal -- you don't think you are discriminating against them,
you just think you are protecting them," she says of male leaders who may make
up that "pocket of resistance" she and her colleagues studied. "Without realizing it you are
preferring men over women when it comes to choice positions."
While the study focused on business, presidential politics,
too, has faced some questions of "benign sexism." Candidates this campaign
cycle have talked a whole lot about women in a feverish effort to secure their
support. Along the way, some women have questioned whether all the well-meaning
politicking is indeed veering toward a soppier swamp of condescension regarding
the "second sex."
In April Mitt Romney told a gathering of newspaper reporters
that his wife Ann "reports to me regularly that the
issue women care about most is the economy," leading the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus to remind
the candidate that "women aren't a foreign country. You
don't need an interpreter to talk to them." (The cable cyclone surrounding
whether Mrs. Romney had ever "worked a day in her life" also resulted from the
cloud pressure of those comments.)
President Barack Obama, on the other
hand, has tried to leverage Michelle's career success to show voters that he gets the pressures facing working women.
At the White House Forum on the
Economy in April, he remarked that "once Michelle and I had our girls, she gave
it her all to balance raising a family and pursuing a career. ... And I know when
she was with the girls she'd feel guilty that she wasn't giving enough time to
her work, and when she was at work, she was feeling guilty she wasn't giving
enough time for the girls."
But this kind of overt display of public sympathy offers
its own problems: A few weeks back journalist Campbell Brown rapped
Obama for "trying too hard" to woo women voters and "employing
a tone that can come across as grating" and "too paternalistic for my taste."
She urged him to stay focused on the economy -- an issue dear to men and women.
As the research shows, all most women seek is the
opportunity to be judged as individuals, rather than viewed through the narrow
lens of someone else's marital kaleidoscope. Perhaps Desai and her colleagues
will spark the conversation that reminds male leaders that though their wives
may expertly run their homes, that does not mean that other women cannot
succeed in the workplace by pursuing a different set of choices.
Of course, change comes only slowly. A few weeks back, after
I gave a long talk at a university about Afghanistan, women's gains, Pakistan, and the endgame for the U.S.
in its longest-ever war, the gentleman who graciously moderated the
conversation finished with a rhetorical flourish:
"Well, you have given us a lot to think about, particularly
on women. And as Barack Obama says, 'Always listen to your wife!'"