March 5, 2008: A moment with...

Deborah Prentice

(Photo by Beverly Schaefer)

Deborah Prentice

This is already a historic election year, in which a woman and an African-American man emerged as the leading candidates to become the Democratic presidential nominee. PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83 spoke in January with Deborah Prentice, chairwoman of the psychology department, about stereotypes — particularly gender stereotypes, one of her academic specialties.

Much has been written about Hillary Clinton’s likability. How does that play into gender stereotypes?

Self-promoting women — and all political candidates have to be extremely self-promoting — run into problems because they are seen as not likable enough. Of course, if they are not self-promoting, they are more likable but are not up to the job. Whichever way Hillary goes, she’s going to run into difficulties, given that we don’t settle for competence in our political candidates; we want them to be likable as well. It is difficult, given existing gender norms, for women to be self-promoting and likable at the same time. George [W.] Bush played on his likability, but the female version of that is something that evokes the stereotype of weakness. I can understand why women do better in parliamentary systems, where they don’t have to go directly to the people all the time.

You have said that women feel much more negatively toward dominant women than men do. Can you elaborate?

Women don’t like dominant behavior, whether it’s a man or a woman who is showing it. They think everybody should be agreeable and cooperative, and of course dominance drives these qualities out. So it is true that they don’t like dominant women, but they don’t like dominant men either. Men have more positive reactions to dominance in general, especially when it’s a man who is being dominant. They tend to have mixed reactions toward dominant women, and more positive reactions toward dominant men.

Much was made of the moment when Hillary Clinton choked up before the New Hampshire primary. What did you think of that?

It illustrates how stereotypes work. It’s not that people come in and apply stereotypes wholesale to situations, but when events happen, stereotypes provide a lens through which to interpret them. I’ve seen George Bush’s eyes well up many times. In him, it’s seen as his humanity showing through. But when Hillary did it at the diner, and especially in response to another woman asking her how she does it, it was not a man’s humanity showing through but a woman’s vulnerability. And it seems to have worked both for her and against her.

Yet in 1972, Sen. Edmund Muskie cried before the New Hampshire primary, and many people say it destroyed his candidacy. Has our perception of a candidate’s emotions changed?

It really depends on the context. Certainly people want their leaders to be human in positive ways, but they don’t want weakness. Yes, times have changed, but I do not think people have become more tolerant of weakness in their political leaders.

Have we had the same problem with racial stereotypes in this campaign?

My perception is that, when it comes to their public images, Hillary Clinton is much more her gender than Barack Obama is his race. That is, in public discussions and the media, racial stereotypes seem to come up less often as a way to explain his behavior than gender stereotypes do to explain hers. It is an interesting difference.

How does Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign affect perceptions?

If Hillary doesn’t trot Bill out, he’ll be the power behind her, whereas if she does trot him out, he’ll soak up all the attention. She’s in a difficult position.

Princeton has been coeducational for almost 40 years. Are the expectations the same for male and female students?

No, male and female students are not perceived and evaluated in the same way. I did a study several years ago in which I asked students about gender stereotypes at Princeton. Princeton men are still held to traditional male stereotypes: They’re still supposed to be ambitious and driven, and not to be gullible or weak. That has changed surprisingly little. For women, it’s more of a mix. They are expected to be warm and friendly, consistent with traditional female stereotypes. They are allowed to be competent and goal-directed, but these qualities are not stressed for them as much as they are for men. In many ways, things are more open for women. After graduation, they can go to Wall Street or medical school if they want to, but they can also teach or travel. The socially approved options are much narrower for men. I think Princeton women experience this openness in two ways. On the one hand it’s freeing, but on the other hand, they wonder why expectations aren’t as high for them. It’s not sexism, exactly, but a kind of soft bigotry. end of article

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