The Female Bias: Why We Like Howard Better Than Heidi

Steph Blogpost

This past week, as I read through The New York Times, I found several headlines declaring Yahoo had bought Tumblr for the immense sum of $1.1 billion. This wouldn’t have been the first time Yahoo has been featured in a major publication within the past few months. Its new CEO, Marissa Mayer, has been a topic of considerable discussion in the business world since her appointment while six-months pregnant. To feminists, this was the high-profile publicity they applauded: a successful businesswoman demonstrating it was possible to take on a major billion-dollar corporation while starting a family. Moreover, it signaled that women could be more forthcoming to their bosses and employees about their pregnancy instead of fearing the implications it might have on their employment status and treatment by colleagues.

However, in February 2013, when Mayer made the decision to ban at-home-work within the company, it created major controversy and public outcry. A memo sent to Yahoo employees explained that face-to-face interaction fostered greater collaboration, an approach to business Mayer learned through her experience at Google. While some studies show that at-home-work leads to greater productivity but less innovation, critics argue that the policy change undermines the ability of employees, especially those caring for young children, to successfully balance their career and personal lives. Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita of Women’s History at the University of California, commented that Mayer “has broken the glass ceiling, but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing their skills and career.”

A response to Rosen’s assertion can be found in the Heidi and Howard study, described in Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Participants in the study were asked to review two cases, half analyzing Heidi and the other half commenting on Howard. Both groups thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but felt Heidi was less trustworthy and only out for herself while Howard seemed like a great guy they’d want to hangout with. It turns out the Heidi and Howard case studies were exactly the same – the only difference was the name change from Heidi to Howard. As Sandberg writes, “If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she’s considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women.” Based on this knowledge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we tend to be more critical of women’s business decisions. In the case of Yahoo, if a male CEO issued the at-home policy ban, it may not have garnered the same attention as when Mayer issued the policy. But because a woman, let alone one who had just been seen as the hallmark for the feminist movement, was responsible for the new policy, the business world and public cried foul. If we fail to recognize these biases, especially if women continue to criticize other women, paving the way for females in the business community will continue to be a challenge.


Stephanie Ostroff

Washington University in St. Louis

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