One would think that obtaining a leadership position should be based on merit alone. Unfortunately that’s not the case, especially not for women. According to research from Jennifer Berdahl and Natalya Alonso, professors at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, the majority of women in major leadership positions are blonde. Despite the fact that only 2 per cent of the world’s population were born blonde, over a third of female senators have that hair colour, while nearly half the women CEOs of S&P 500 companies are also blonde.
Writer Minda Zetlin decided to examine this phenomenon, noting that the perception of youth plays a role, since many of us have blond hair as children, before changing colours in our later years. Race is also an important factor, as white people are by and large the majority when it comes to leadership roles in America. Zetlin goes on to point out the inherent irony here, noting that in the annals of American pop culture, blonde women are traditionally painted as being less intelligent than their brunette counterparts.
Berdahl and Alonso believe that women in leadership roles try and use that contradiction in their favour. Being blonde might actually help to soften the way others perceive them, especially when they take an authoritative stance as leaders are often required to do. Berdhal and Alonso tested their theory by asking 100 men to rate photos of women, both blonde and brunette, based on "attractiveness, competence, and independence."
At first the men found that the brunettes seemed more competent. But once women were paired with assertive quotes like "My staff knows who's boss," or "I don't want there to be any ambiguity about who's in charge," the blonde women suddenly rate higher. "The same woman changes her hair colour from blonde to brunette, and she's seen as a bitch," Berdahl told The Huffington Post.
Then they were given photos of blonde and brunette women paired with a quote, such as "My staff knows who's boss" or "I don't want there to be any ambiguity about who's in charge." Suddenly there were big differences, with the brunettes coming in for harsh criticism, while the blondes were rated much higher on warmth and attractiveness. As Berdahl told the Huffington Post, "The same woman changes her hair colour from blonde to brunette, and she's seen as a bitch."
Does that man women who want to be successful should dye their hair blonde? Berdahl seems to think so. "If women are choosing to dye their hair blonde, there's something strategic about the choice," she said. "If the package is feminine, disarming, and childlike, you can get away with more assertive, independent, and masculine behaviour."
Learn more about the dynamics of women in leadership roles with a copy of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and tell us if you buy into the notion that blonde women have a better shot at leadership roles.