Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is currently at work on a book about the failings of feminism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The scene that the people of Nashville watched this week on television as their mayor resigned was hardly unheard of: a politician, admitting to a crime (felony theft, in this case), after being exposed for infidelity (with an employee, in this case).
But there was one unusual aspect that the average viewer couldn’t miss: the disgraced politician was a woman.
It’s so rare to hear of a woman politician cheating, in fact, that the only example in recent American memory is Minnesota state majority leader Amy Koch, who stepped down in 2011 over an extramarital affair. Indeed, when Koch went looking for blueprints of how other women politicians had moved forward with their lives, she couldn’t find one. “I didn’t really find any stories about women politicians,” she said. “There’s women on the other end of these scandals but there’s not one where it’s a woman politician. None that I found.”
Until now. Mayor Megan Barry and her head of security jetted off on more than nine romantic “business trips” on taxpayers’ dime – while exchanging nude pictures on work phones, according to an affidavit that was filed with a search warrant issued by a Nashville judge – and the two have been slapped with hefty fines after each pleaded guilty to felony theft of property over $10,000.
But what’s perhaps most notable is that Barry’s behavior is uncommonly audacious when viewed through the lens of our society’s expectations for women. Of course, if we’ve learned anything from the past year, expectations are changing – and not coincidentally this is happening along with the ongoing battle for both equal pay and more leadership positions for women. This gets complicated.
Studies show that women are 40% more likely to cheat on their spouses than they were in 1990. There are now 73.5 million women in the American workforce – compared with just 18.4 million in 1950, and 45% of working women today say they want CEO or senior management jobs. So in Barry’s case, one has to wonder: As women are feeling pressured to – even subconsciously –“act like men” to muscle into positions of authority in the workplace, are they at greater risk of falling into the traps of dishonesty and hubris that have plagued men for centuries?
The answer is a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. Certainly, there are male-stereotyped behaviors that women are perpetually advised to exhibit in order to get ahead in the workplace. Be confident. Be assertive. Offer a firm handshake. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t apologize. Take credit for your ideas. Put yourself first.
Given all that, it’s theoretically easy to see how, if a successful woman (like Barry, for example) rose in the ranks by adopting – growing comfortable with – these behaviors, they might begin to infiltrate her entire worldview, and make her feel infallible. Just like many men.
However, when digging into the research, it becomes clear that it’s important to distinguish between the uptick in infidelity among women as a whole, and women in power. Researchers believe the change overall is due to women being less dependent on men – not because they’re seeking to behave like them. (And let’s be clear: Women still only cheat 70% as often as men do.)
Women in power? Well, that’s another story. But it’s a story about power, not women. In 2011, when researchers surveyed 1,561 individuals across a range of career levels, their findings showed that gender had little bearing on who was most likely to cheat. Instead, they found solid correlations between people in positions of authority, and their likelihood of cheating. According to Psychological Science, where the study was published, “There is a strong association between power and confidence and that the amount of confidence a person has is the strongest link between power and unfaithfulness.”
Confidence is a male-stereotyped attribute, so in a way, it’s true that women being pressured to “act like men” could at some point contribute to their infidelity. But only if they achieve positions of power, so don’t expect any of this to signal an oncoming tidal wave of women embroiled in tawdry scandal anytime soon. The number of women achieving positions of power is still ridiculously low. Women make up 54% of all employees at S&P 500 companies, but just 29.9% of senior management level officials, and only 6.3% of CEOs.
And yet, the number of women running for office is up 350% from 2016. So yes: It’s disconcerting to see a publicly elected woman acting with the sort of reckless entitlement we’ve long associated with men. But it’s also possible to view her misstep like this: As more women find the spotlight, inevitably we’ll hear more about women behaving badly.