Women Leaders: Unnaturally Blonde

The satirical article, Mattel Just Released An Interim CEO Barbie! pokes fun of the precarious and temporary leadership positions that women tend to end up in. The spoof reflects, probably unwittingly, another pattern of women’s leadership: The (Interim) CEO Barbie is blonde.

Blonde women are stereotyped as dumb but are disproportionately represented among women leaders in North America. Almost half the female S&P 500 CEOs are blonde. Over a third of female U.S. Senators (42% of female Canadian Senators) are blonde. These proportions are far above the natural occurrence of blonde hair in North American adults.

Many firsts in female leadership are also blonde: The first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor; the first female U.S. vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro; the first serious female U.S. presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Even women presidents of prestigious universities are likely to be blonde: Drew Faust at Harvard, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton, Amy Gutmann at the University of Pennsylvania, Susan Hockfield at MIT, Suzanne Fortier at McGill, and Martha Piper at my own university. Look around. The pattern is there.

This first became obvious to me at a conference at the Harvard Business School where the female speakers were mostly blonde. Talking about it with colleagues, it seems there are several potential explanations for this pattern of blonde women being overrepresented among women in leadership. First is racial bias: Blonde hair (and blue eyes) is (naturally) unique to caucasians. Second is attractiveness bias: Blonde women tend to be seen as more attractive, or “sexy,” than other women, and, like attractive men, may be more likely than their less attractive counterparts to become leaders. Third is the preference for warmth in women, or the Glinda-the-Good-Witch effect: Blonde women might be assumed to be kinder and gentler than others. Fourth is youth bias: Blonde hair, especially its platinum variety, primarily occurs (naturally) in children, whose hair darkens with age. Maybe it is all of the above, and women who meet the feminine ideal in North American culture of being white, attractive, young and accommodating are more likely to attain leadership than less “ideal” women, even if these ideals have little to do with (or are seen as inversely related to) competence.

My colleagues and I are investigating this seeming paradox of the dumb blonde stereotype and blonde women in leadership. Preliminary results from our first study suggest that, similar to “The Teddy Bear Effect” for black men, in which babyface features render black men less threatening and more warm, innocent and trustworthy, blonde hair may be disarming for women. Our data suggest that blonde women are not only assumed to be younger than their darker haired counterparts, but are also judged to be less independent minded and less willing take a stand than other women and than men.

In other words, Barbie can be CEO as long as she is young and/or docile, or being blonde might allow her to be older and more forceful than she otherwise could be.

Beyond Words and Waivers

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 11.46.35 AMThe case of Laurentian University Professor Michael Persinger follows a number of recent academic freedom cases at Canadian universities, including my own. His case raises interesting questions about academic freedom, political correctness, and respectful environments. As in all cases, it is important to not take his words out of context, but to consider what was expressed, why, how, and to what effect.

All we know so far is that Professor Persinger was removed from teaching a psychology course for requiring students to sign a waiver agreeing to his use of certain words, including slang terms for genitalia, sexual intercourse, and sexual orientation. These might be the only ones on his list that are generally considered to be “vulgar,” or to risk eliciting personal feelings of shame, objectification, arousal, or trauma in some of his students. There are no such racially charged words on his list. Other words on his list include “politician,” “solipsism” and “precarious.”

I have used most of the offensive sexual terms on Professor Persinger’s list in my own courses. I research and teach social bias and discrimination, and these words are used in sexual harassment to derogate others based on sex. I do not use these words out of context, or directly, but rather discuss how they are sometimes used at work, why, against whom, and to what effect. My purpose in referring to these words in my teaching is to educate students about hierarchy-enhancing behaviors that reinforce inequalities between social groups. It is important for students to learn how to recognize, combat, and prevent such behavior in the workplace.

Professor Persinger says he uses these words to promote critical and free thought, and to make students aware of their reactions to uncomfortable or offensive concepts, while he teaches neuropsychology. His research and expertise may reveal this practice to be important to learning and illustrating key concepts in his field. I can imagine, for example, an instructor asking students to ponder their emotional reactions to certain terms as a learning exercise about how emotion and cognition interrelate. Testimony from some of his students suggests his unusual methods made his course and its concepts memorable.

I can also imagine, however, an instructor using these terms in gratuitous ways that create a hostile learning environment. Unfortunately there are instructors who “get off” on using offensive terms in class, on making students under their power feel uncomfortable, and who gain popularity with students who themselves derive benefits from, or think it’s “cool,” talking raunch. When I look at the words on Professor Persinger’s list, it seems the students they are most likely to cause discomfort in are women and sexual minorities. Careless use of such language could create a hostile learning environment for members of these groups.

An example exam question Professor Persinger provides in his waiver reads: “…her underwear is remarkably damp and a strangely familiar odour of fresh proteinaceous material drifts into her senses. The most likely region of the brain that was stimulated would be…”. I am not an expert in his area, so I do not know how this graphic prose about a woman’s sexual fluids fits into his scholarship. I do know that such a question on an exam runs the risk of seeming gratuitous, making the professor seem “creepy” to some and “cool” to others, and interfering with the comfort, concentration and performance of students in the former group.

Words alone are not the issue; they must be considered in context. Academic freedom does not mean faculty can indulge in language for personal entertainment or gain at the expense of a respectful environment for their students. It does protect the right to responsibly discuss controversial ideas and to challenge student’s thinking. Attempts to discourage speech that demeans vulnerable groups led to backlash deriding such efforts as “politically correct;” attempts to blindly allow all speech not matter what is also misguided. The question is not which words are being used, but how, by whom, and to whose benefit or detriment.

Ten Principles of a Well-Run University

imgresRecent leadership crises at North American universities (see, for example, UBC, Calgary, SaskatchewanMissouri, IllinoisIowa, Texas, and Virginia) have led to calls for improvement in university governance, management of conflicts of interests, and safeguarding academic freedom. My discussions and exchanges with numerous faculty and higher education experts have identified the following ten principles of a well-run university. From these may flow secondary principles, such as the composition of universities, their committees, and their governing bodies. Perhaps others will find these principles useful as a departure point for discussion and reform.

1. At its core the university is its faculty and its students, by a definition as old as the institution itself. As universities became more complex and granted formal education and degrees, faculties were organized by broad disciplines and were led by the pre-eminent scholars in those disciplines. Thus, deans, vice chancellors, other administrators, and governing boards came into existence to facilitate the work of other scholars and students.

2. The principle of shared governance is inherent in the university. The responsibility for the continuity and quality of the university is vested in its faculty. This means that the faculty is responsible for what is taught, by whom it is taught, and to whom it is taught. It means that the faculty are expected to express views on the policies, leadership, and direction of the university.

3. Academic administrators serve the faculty and its students. All administrative officers in a university have multiple and various responsibilities. However, their paramount responsibility is to advance the mission of the university: the faculty’s ability to discover and advance new knowledge, its freedom to communicate that knowledge, and its service to the community.

4. Academic freedom is the core value of the university. Freedom of inquiry is essential to the discovery, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom is not absolute; its exercise is always subject to the measure of competence, as ascertained by peer review by experts in the discipline. Based on established expertise, however, faculty have the right to express their views, even if others may disagree with their conclusions.

5. The role of governing boards at public universities is to represent the interests of the public. Governing boards are accountable to the public for their actions. Accountability is impossible without transparency, so the actions and reasons for actions of boards must be public and the positions of individual board members with regard to those actions should also be open to public review.

6. Governing boards are responsible for fiduciary and policy decisions affecting the university. Governing boards do not involve themselves in the administration or management of the university, which are the responsibility of the university’s administration and faculty.

7. In consultation with the faculty, the governing board hires and fires the university president. The governing board seeks faculty opinion by means of an organized process with broad input from the faculty. Except for cause, in which case special investigations are required, the termination of a president or the failure to renew a president’s contract is undertaken only after a formal review in which the views of the faculty are sought.

8. Communication to and from the governing board is through the president. This is because the president alone is responsible to the board and the president alone is hired and fired by the board. Exceptions to this line of communication may occur when the board asks the president to have policies explained or presented by other university officials, or when the board has undertaken, with the knowledge of the president, a formal review of the president’s performance. Board members communicate their concerns about the university, its faculty, or students directly to the president.

9. Vice presidents and deans are appointed by the president, in consultation with the faculty, and serve at the pleasure of the president. Vice presidents and deans work with the president in developing the policies of the university that will be presented to the board and they serve as administrators of the university in their assigned spheres. It is not uncommon for a new president to ask for the resignations of those who report directly to the president to enable the new president to build his or her own team.

10. Members of the president’s administration support the president’s policies and leadership. They are free to advise the president and to disagree with the directions or policies of the president when consulting with the president. As members of the president’s administration, they should not criticize those policies in a public forum or to the board of governors without the consent of the president, except in the case of a formal review of the president by the board in which broad faculty input is sought. If these administrators feel unable to support the president in this way, they should return to their faculty posts, where they can exercise their freedom to express their criticism publicly.

Response to Globe & Mail Editorial Rejecting Smith Report

On Thursday October 22, the Globe and Mail editorial board rejected The Honourable Lynn Smith’s interpretation of academic freedom in her report, which was based on the University of British Columbia’s academic freedom policy as well as Smith’s thorough research into the history and definition of academic freedom. The Globe also rejected Smith’s conclusion that the university interfered with my academic freedom “through the combined acts and omissions of Mr. Montalbano, the named individuals in the Sauder School, and others,” a conclusion Smith reached after conducting 20 interviews, reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, and weighing other evidence. The Globe wrote that I “should be free to comment casually on university politics” but that my “post was one remark about one unexplained kerfuffle in a university’s administration.” Below is my reply, which appears in Tuesday’s paper (October 27).

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.54.38 PM