Choice or circumstance: When are women penalized for their success?

Yanitsa Toneva, Madeline E. Heilman, Gaëlle Pierre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Past research shows that successful women in traditionally masculine roles often experience interpersonal penalties not sustained by similarly successful men. In two studies we, addressed the question of how the perceived motivation of women for counter-stereotypical positions affects whether such penalties occur. Specifically, we investigated whether women who are successful in male gender-typed roles are less likely to be penalized when their attainment of the role is due to circumstance than to focused and intentional goal pursuit. In Study 1, we compared reactions to women and men who had been successful in a leadership role on a STEM project and showed that when a woman had been arbitrarily assigned to the leadership role she incurred fewer interpersonal penalties than when she had actively pursued it. In Study 2, we replicated and extended these findings by demonstrating similar effects for a successful woman in a financial position when she had attained her position due to a series of lucky breaks rather than purposeful goal-directed efforts. The results of these studies support the idea that the perception that women have actively chosen to pursue counter-normative goals plays an important role in determining whether they are penalized for their success in traditionally male domains. It was not simply being in the role, but how she got there, that determined whether the derogation and dislike shown to be directed at successful women in past research occurred.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)651-659
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Applied Social Psychology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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