Goizueta Faculty Interview: Melissa Williams on Power, Backlash, and the Current Presidential Election


Melissa Williams joined the Goizueta Business School faculty in 2011 and is Assistant Professor of Organization & Management. She earned her PhD in psychology from University of California Berkeley, after which she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Graduate School of Business at Standford. In this interview with business librarian Saira Raza, Professor William’s discusses her work on power dynamics in the workplace, especially as they relate to women, and sheds light on the subtle ways dominance and assertiveness are demonstrated and perceived. 


GBL: Your PhD is in psychology. Were you looking to teach in a business school setting or was that something that happened as your research interests became more developed?

MW: Psychology is the basic discipline upon which organizational behavior draws – how do humans behave at work? I was always interested in topics around this area – one of my first research projects was about women’s salaries and the expectations for what women ought to earn. I didn’t start out thinking business, but it was a natural fit. After I got my PhD, I ended up doing a post-doc at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. They have a strong foundation in psychology, so it was cool to see the kind of research that was possible in that context. I wasn’t necessarily always interested in academia. I took a break between undergrad and graduate school and did other things, such as policy writing. But I came to the conclusion that science was the way I wanted to answer the questions I was interested in. So once I went back to graduate school, it became clear that this is what I wanted to do. I feel really lucky to be able to do this work.

GBL: You have an article that’s forthcoming, “Sexual Aggression When Power Is New: The Effects of Situational High Power in Chronically Low Power Individuals.” Can you talk about what you discovered through this research and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it?

MW: My interest in this project was about the relationship between feeling powerful and seeing others through a sexual light. One of the origins of sexual harassment is seeing people as available for your use or interest. We started out with the question: are powerful people more prone to seeing others in this way? There is research that has been done that says that powerful people tend to see others in terms of their usefulness (i.e. “can you solve my problem?”) rather than seeing them as equals or peers or complex beings with lots of unique characteristics. People become “tools” to the powerful, and that’s one of the cognitive changes that power can induce in us. But the relationship between power and perception of others is not straight forward. And the relationship between power and sexual harassment is not straight forward. We explored that a little bit more and ended up finding an interaction from a statistical point of view, which means there needs to be two variables to understand the result rather than just one. What we found was that the strongest tendencies for sexual harassment were in the category of people who felt themselves to be low in power in general. For reasons that we’re still theorizing about, they don’t feel like they are powerful or influential people. They don’t feel like people listen to them. They don’t feel like they get a lot of respect. They don’t have much influence or control in the world. When you give low chronic power individuals a powerful role in a work context, what we think is going on is that there is a sense of entitlement or justification of the rewards of power that some individuals feel like they have been denied in their past. People that feel like they are treated well, have influence, and have others depending on them (high chronic power individuals) show less of a tendency to abuse their power to exploit and sexually harass. Power doesn’t just cause this one effect in people, but rather it polarizes people. What we found is that people who already felt high in their chronic power became more socially responsible when you gave them a powerful role. And people that felt low in chronic power became less socially responsible and more likely to act on tendencies or desires.

GBL: Do you think that has to do with their experience of power?

MW: I think so. What we don’t understand yet and we want to follow up on is how do people come to the conclusion that they are low in power? And who are those people? We looked at some demographic characteristics such as unemployment, education level, and there’s some relationships there but they’re not very strong and not reliable across experiments. It doesn’t seem to be an objective source of power. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily make you powerful to have an education or a job or to be of a certain age. These people are somehow construing about themselves that they deserve more power than they have, and then once they acquire it, they’re more likely to act on it in this self-serving way, compared to those who didn’t particularly feel that they deserve to have that.

In one of our experiments, men who were either low or high in chronic power were asked to send text messages to women and were given a list of three options of texts, only one of which was sexually explicit (e.g. “You look really great in those clothes. I wonder what you would look like with them off.” versus “What are you watching on Netflix these days?”). We wanted to know what kind of person would choose to send the sexually explicit text, and we found that participants who were chronically low in power were more likely to send the sexually explicit text than others.

What we’re thinking about is how can we predict, in an organizational context, who is going to abuse power? Abusing power can take many forms such as taking a big chunk of bonus money, taking credit for work that’s been done by a team, sexual harassment. How can we predict who is going to respond to a promotion with power abuse as opposed to the increased sense of social responsibility? When we think about promotions, we think about who is the most competent for the job or who has been doing it the longest, but there’s one more criteria to add to that: do they want the job because of how it will benefit themselves? Or do they have ideas for how it can benefit the team?

GBL: You get called by the press a fair amount as an expert on discrimination in the workplace among other issues. Some would argue that the news media can reinforce certain issues of bias in our society. What role do you feel the news media is playing when it comes to some of these ideas that you are trying to unpack?

MW: There’s a lot of research that uses media text as a source of information about how we talk about women and minorities, such as looking at the adjectives and terminology that’s used. There is a tradition in science that says that the media is a reflection of our culture. And journalists, of course, are individual humans like everyone else. They’re writing under deadlines, and they’re choosing words that reflect the biases that they hold. There’s certainly evidence that our media has become more partisan — we don’t all watch the same news channel anymore, so that has interesting implications. But I wouldn’t say that the media is causing the problem, I would say that it’s a mutually constituting cycle. The media are people and they are trying to write about things in way that will resonate with others.

GBL: You recently published a paper about backlash, focusing on the research that’s been done on this topic over the years. What is backlash, and what motivated you to explore this issue?

MW: Backlash describes when there are stronger social penalties for women that behave assertively relative to men who are showing the same kind of behavior. The paper was a meta-analysis, which means we’re compiling studies that have been done by other people, finding the consistent metrics that are available, and then doing a quantitative aggregation of those studies. One of the reasons to do that is if you feel like the general consensus in science about that phenomenon is not really telling the whole story. We wanted to find out if backlash was really happening. There’s been lots of studies on this going back to the 1970s, and they’ve been done in lots of different ways. On one hand, this is good because it show the generalizability of the effects. Some of the research did experiments on women asking for raises compared while others focused on live interactions in a team setting.

When we pulled all this research together, we confirmed that overall there is an effect. The general sense of the science seems to be correct that women are penalized more, and where the penalty comes is not so much in assessments of women’s competence of ability but in their assessments of likeability. This can matter in careers just as much as competence does because you don’t want to be a co-worker or team member or project partner with someone you don’t like, even if you think they’re pretty competent.

We found that we can get a better picture of backlash by splitting apart the more explicit forms of assertiveness or dominance from more implicit forms. Explicit forms would be things like direct requests, when you know someone is trying to influence you in some way. It may be appropriate for the context, but you’re still consciously aware of it. An example is asking for a raise during the review process. Salary negotiation is a very normal part of that process, but there’s an awareness that it’s an influence attempt. Those situations are where backlash is strongest. And where we didn’t find significant backlash was when the dominance was implicit. In our analysis, this could take non-verbal form (such as body language, taking up a lot of physical space, sustaining eye contact for a long time) and also para-verbal dominance (such as interrupting, speaking loudly, speaking without hesitations like “um”). Men and women didn’t differ in their backlash from implicit, non-verbal or para-verbal, behaviors.

What we think is going on is that when someone is making a direct request to you to influence you, that’s when your stereotypes are activated. That’s when someone might think “this is weird for a woman to do” or “this makes me uncomfortable.” When the request is implicit, we know that it works because speaking loudly and making eye contact is a well-known influence strategy, but we’re not as aware that the influence is happening. When we answer questions about why we went with person A’s idea and not person B’s idea, we’ll say “well, they had better reasoning and they listed points one and two…” but we won’t say “we chose them because they were tall.” But we know that’s one of the things that influences.

People are not always aware of the things that influence them. As a result, what we learned is that when you’re not aware you’re being influenced, women can bypass certain stereotypes since the dominance and assertiveness is not as obvious. One implication is that it’s still a problem that women are penalized for asking for things, but at least there’s this one method where women can be an assertive presence in the workplace and feel like they can physically inhabit the leader role without feeling like social penalties are going to follow. My experience in talking about these issues is that women in leadership roles are very aware of backlash. They try to compensate for those by being extra cautious and that doesn’t always pay off. They have to calibrate to each situation differently.

GBL: So much of what you’re saying makes me think of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and some of the criticism she receives. What are your thoughts on her as a model for how backlash plays out?

I should preface this by saying she is a sample size of 1, so her experience is not necessarily that of all women leaders. There are certainly some unique things about her situation. I do think that there is a narrower range of acceptability that people allow her in terms of assertiveness. We want her to have a platform and stand up to rogue foreign leaders if she were president, but also maybe not tell us what to do. It’s hard to be all of those things simultaneously in one person. One of her challenges too, something that women get dinged for, is for wanting power and for being ambitious in some way. We see this in the literature on backlash – the “worst” way for women to ask for things is to ask for things for themselves (e.g. I want a raise or a promotion because I deserve one). Whereas women are not penalized for asking for things for other people (e.g. my assistant needs a raise). To the extent that people think Hillary wants to be president because she’s ambitious or power-hungry, we’re more likely to penalize her for that than for a male candidate like Donald Trump, or even a more traditional candidate like Mitt Romney. People are ok with men wanting to have power, and they don’t think that undermines what they might also want to do for the country. Whereas for women, we want them to have motives that are only other-serving. “Well, you can run for office because you want to help other people, but if I get the sense that you also think you would enjoy the perks of high status, I’m not going to like you for that.” I think she’s trying to navigate that realm – how to say she wants to be president for others, but also as an individual say “I want this job. I want to be president.” It’s really tricky and fascinating to watch.

GBL: After the debates, there’s been a lot of discussion about how often Trump interrupted Clinton during her time to speak. What do you make of that? Are there any other cues that you picked up on that relate to your research on implicit and explicit demonstrations of dominance?

MW: Yes, I definitely noticed the interrupting that was going on. And interrupting is, of course, a para-verbal form of dominance expression. What interested me was not only that the interrupting was happening but how Clinton was responding – which was in fact very minimally. You can imagine other people getting angry or frustrated or lashing out but we did not see that in her. I think it’s because she expected to be interrupted, she prepared for it, and she’s aware that she has to walk a more narrow line than other candidates do in terms of being assertive but not angry.

GBL: What’s your favorite business book and why?

I love Studs Terkel’s book Working. It’s a little dated now – it’s from the 1970s. Terkel went around and interviewed people with different jobs – someone from an ad agency, someone at a Ford factory – and it was just them talking about their lives and what are the good and bad things about their jobs and careers. It’s totally fascinating and gives lots of ideas of what makes a career. And how often we get it wrong about what success actually looks like – what fulfillment and reward and joy at work actually look like.

What are three words that come to mind when you think of the business library?

1. Helpful

2. Efficient

3. “The tip of the iceberg:” My experience is when I ask for a little bit, I get a lot. I get this idea that there’s this one thing that I want, but then I learn that there are forty more things for me to consider, which is just terrific. I learn more about what the iceberg is when I get help from the library.

One Response to “Goizueta Faculty Interview: Melissa Williams on Power, Backlash, and the Current Presidential Election”

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  1. Larry Knotts

    Reading your analysis is very enlightening. I was raised in a predominantly male (all brothers) and traditionally military family (very authoritative, but fair father). I’ve raised three daughters.
    My query to you is reflective of a challenge I’ve constantly faced as my daughters entered into adulthood and the workplace; and represents a social dichotomy for which I’ve found no adequate analysis or solution.
    I should preface this question, by noting that one of my daughters is involved in market research, and is consequently well-versed in selling “strategies”, and she and I have had many conversations resolving around the following.
    How do we establish a middle-ground or rules of behavior within a society that uses and responds to sexual nuance and oft times blatant sexuality in advertising for virtually everything under the sun?
    I believe the obvious solution and the one I tend to extoll with my daughters and male and paternal peers, is to establish a good ‘moral’ base of behavior; but it concerns me that millennials have become morally ‘adrift’ and are more apt to assume that provocative dress, body posture and verbal innuendo are automatic green lights to invite sexual advance and harassment. Morality is sending one message, but in many cases; daily media is sending an exact opposite message.


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