Hillary Clinton's candidacy was a highly visible sign that a woman can reach the highest levels of power. It was prophesied her presidency would inspire females in many fields to shoot high, and encourage organizations to accommodate their ambitions.
Needless to say, she was defeated. And new research suggests this had negative implications for women far outside the political realm.
While Clinton's failure "did not shift personal attitudes towards female leaders," it increased the belief that the deck was stacked in favor of men. Specifically, participants in two post-election studies were less likely to view female workers as having strong potential to rise in an organization.
"This work finds evidence for a 'reverse Obama effect' that undermines perceived likelihood of advancement of underrepresented minorities," University of Queensland researchers Miriam Yates and Tyler Okimoto write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. "Such high-profile failures may serve as a reminder that a glass ceiling still exists, particularly in the highest levels of power and influence in American society."
The researchers describe two studies, the first of which was conducted two weeks prior to, and two days after, the 2016 general election. The participants, 324 Americans recruited online, were asked to evaluate a job candidate based on the transcript of an interview. Half were told the candidate was named James, while the others were informed her name was Jennifer.
Using a one-to-seven scale, participants responded to two statements: "In the next 12 months, this person will likely be promoted," and "This person is likely to reach the highest levels of management."
The results: Prior to the election, the applicant's gender did not impact their perceived likelihood of promotion. But after the election, it very much did so; Jennifer was viewed as "significantly less promotable" than James.
The second study, which featured 997 Americans recruited online, took place in June of 2017, seven months after the election. It was identical to the first study, except half of the participants began by reading a news article about the election results. The others read an unrelated story about gift shopping.
"Participants who were reminded of the 2016 election reported male interviewees as significantly higher in promotability," the researchers report. As in the first study, "the election outcome disadvantaged the perceived promotability of women relative to men."
"Importantly, personal beliefs about the suitability of male and female leaders were not different following the election," the researchers note. "Nor were beliefs in the existence of the glass ceiling." Clinton's loss "appeared to serve as a reminder of gender bias in other people's decision-making, but did not change beliefs about its existence or legitimacy."
For proponents of gender equality, that's a positive sign. But Yates and Okimoto point out that "perceptions of the likely actions of others can still shape individual behavior."
For example, people may be less willing to mentor an employee who is seen as having little chance of making it up the ladder. And an individual's drive can be dampened if you feel you have little chance of achieving your goals.
The researchers conclude that, "while female role models are important for women's leadership advancement," there is danger in placing a huge symbolic burden on the shoulders of one person. Their success can be empowering, but their failure can reinforce old roadblocks.