Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 21, 2019

Michelle Obama is Taller than Barack Obama

by Monica Biernat
Obama family portrait

My title sentence is objectively untrue: Michelle Obama is 5’11” tall, whereas Barack Obama is 6’1.” But for a woman, Michelle Obama is very tall, and for a man, Barack Obama is just tall. When we use adjectives like “tall” and “short” or “smart” and “dumb” to describe people, we generally have a referent or comparison point in mind. Tall compared with what? Smart relative to whom? Sometimes the referent is explicit, as in the comment, “You look great today, compared with yesterday,” but more often it is implicit or implied: “You are so fun!”  In research conducted over the past few decades, my colleagues and I have found that demographic categories (such as gender, race, and age) and the stereotypes associated with them provide the unspoken comparison for many social judgments.

Stereotypes are beliefs about the typical characteristics of the members of a group (as they compare with the members of another group). In the case of gender, stereotypes that men are better leaders than women, that women are more emotional than men, and that men are taller than women lead us to judge individual men and women on those attributes relative to within-group standards. Women are judged relative to expectations for women, and men are judged relative to expectations for men. When asked to make a judgment about an individual woman or man – How good a leader is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg? How emotional is your father? How tall is Michelle Obama? – we may use the group stereotype as a standard.  Sheryl Sandberg is a strong leader (relative to stereotypically low expectations of female leaders). Your father may be very emotional (compared with stereotypically unemotional men).  Michelle Obama is really tall (for a woman).

This tendency to shift standards depending on a person’s gender means that the same judgment or description (“great leader”) means something different when applied to a woman versus a man. A man labeled a “great leader” is likely perceived as objectively better at leadership than a woman labeled a “great leader. ” This is because the man is being compared to a higher standard of leadership.

In our research, we have repeatedly found a disconnect between the adjectives applied to individual women and men and more “objective” judgments of those same people. For example, women and men were judged equally “tall,” but the men were judged objectively taller in feet and inches. Women who were judged to be “more financially successful” than men were nonetheless perceived to earn less money per year than these same men. A female applicant for a “chief of staff” position was judged as more “competent” than an identical male applicant, but she was also judged to have objectively less skill.

These patterns occur because subjective judgments are based on within-gender comparisons that can favor those who are stereotyped as deficient in an attribute, such as those lower in height or job-related competence.  But more objective judgments or direct comparisons reveal the opposite, stereotype-consistent pattern. Michelle Obama may be perceived as “taller” than Barack Obama, but if judges were asked to estimate heights in feet and inches, Barack would come out on top.  

In this case, Barack Obama is the objectively taller person, but in most judgment situations, we don’t have a measuring tape that gives us the “truth.” This is where stereotypes come in: They create a perception that feels real, such that we see a man as objectively having the better skill set for a “chief of staff” job, even when a woman has the identical skills. At the same time, the slipperiness of adjectives and comparison to within-gender expectations prompt a more favorable subjective judgment of the woman’s competence.

Why might this be important? We are judged by and make judgments about other people every day. Some of these judgments may matter little (such as whether the barista thinks you’re nice), but others matter a lot (whether the barista’s boss decides to promote her to manager).  The use of shifting standards may mean that the evaluative feedback we give or receive as members of negatively stereotyped groups is inconsistent or confusing.

Consider these research findings: On a co-ed softball team, female players were cheered more than male players when they hit a single but were more likely to be benched or placed in the lowest priority positions in the game. Female subordinates were praised more than comparable men for their performance on an academic task but were less likely to be assigned team captain. In a Wall Street law firm, female junior attorneys received more favorable narrative feedback from their supervisors than male junior attorneys but received lower numerical ratings that matter for promotion.

Theresa Vescio of Penn State University describes these patterns as the “praise but no raise” effect. It’s nice to be praised, but praise sometimes means that expectations of us were particularly low! In that sense, praise can be patronizing, and praise that is not accompanied by valued outcomes (better pay, a promotion) may be demoralizing and demotivating.

So what is a human judge to do? Ridding our minds of stereotypes is one solution, but that’s a tall order. Another solution is to use good practices for judging merit, such as establishing and consistently applying clear judgment criteria, and relying on good sources of evidence. Of course, sometimes the use of shifting standards is legitimate, as when we judge the work of 2nd graders and college students using different standards.  But when it comes to most work and performance contexts, those of us who wish to be fair must make efforts to avoid the problem of shifting standards.


For further reading

Biernat, M. (2012). Stereotypes and shifting standards: Forming, communicating and translating person impressions. In P. G. Devine & E. A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 45 (pp. 1-59). New York: Elsevier.

Biernat, M., & Manis, M. (1994).  Shifting standards and stereotype-based judgments.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 5-20.

Biernat, M., Tocci, M.J., & Williams, J. C. (2012). The language of performance evaluations: Gender-based shifts in content and consistency of judgment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 186-192

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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