Jennifer Chatman, a tenured professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, noticed something weird happening with her student after she turned 40. Despite feeling like she was at the top of her teaching career with more expertise than ever, her student class evaluations were getting worse.
“If anything, my teaching was getting even better, but students were harder on me,” she told Mirage News.
When she brought it up to her middle-aged female colleagues, they described the same experiences—but her male colleagues did not.
Intrigued, she wanted to gather more than just anecdotal evidence, so she designed a three-part study, which was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in November 2022.
Empirical Evidence Of A Niceness Bias
Chatman and her co-authors concluded that both men and women are perceived as capable as they age. But women are seen as “less warm” when they get older, resulting in them being judged more harshly in the workplace.
How did she come to this conclusion? In her first study, participants were given headshots of hypothetical supervisors at a tech company and given identical information about each one. Then, they were asked to rate “Steve” and “Sue” on various adjectives like “forceful” and “gentle” in middle age, compared to when they were younger.
Both were rated higher on characteristics of “agency” as they aged, but Sue was rated lower on characteristics related to “warmth.”
“It’s just stunning,” Chatman told Mirage News. “These stereotypes are so hard-wired and deeply entrenched that they come out even when absolutely identical information is provided about a man and a woman.”
For Chatman’s second study her team asked 500 executives in leadership roles to have their real-life colleagues perform an assessment that measured different attributes, including assertiveness and agreeableness
The results showed that women’s warmth was perceived consistently as they aged, but men were considered to be warmer as they got older. These results were less dramatic, but they could put women at a disadvantage when directly compared to men in their same age group.
The third study analyzed a large dataset of university professor evaluations over time. While the male professors’ evaluations remained consistent, evaluations of female professors peaked in their 30s then quickly declined, bottoming out at around age 47.
Surprisingly, after that, the evaluations became more favorable again, and by their early 60s, their reviews were similar to their male colleagues. That seems to indicate that midlife, in particular, is a time when women experience discrimination.
What Does This Mean For Working Women?
The research shows that even as a woman gains experience and capability on the job, a lack of perceived “niceness” can hold her back. Clearly, the solution is not for women to try to be nicer in midlife.
Rather, the authors concluded that awareness and education about these stereotypes could help remove some of the boundaries that prevent women from reaching their full professional potential.