The Lioness and the Lion – Double Standards?



Last week several foreign newspapers and news networks – CNN, BBC, Global News, Telegraph, The Guardian UK, Washington Post, New York Post, Independent UK, Quora, NBC, The Sun, People Magazine, to name a few carried the story of the lioness that killed the father of her three cubs at the Indianapolis Zoo this week.

According to the reports, Indianapolis zoo staff said they heard “an unusual amount of roaring” at the lions’ outdoor yard early Monday morning.
When they arrived, they saw a female lion, Zuri, in a physical confrontation with their adult male lion, Nyack.

“Zoo personnel made every effort to separate the lions, but Zuri held Nyack by the neck until he stopped moving,” the zoo said in a statement.
Zoo veterinary staff conducted a necropsy on Nyack and found that the 10-year-old male died of suffocation from injuries to the neck.
The two lions were housed together at the Indianapolis Zoo for eight years and produced three cubs, zoo officials said. According to staff logs, there were no previous examples of aggression between Zuri and Nyack.

“We know many people loved visiting Nyack. He was a magnificent male lion and left his legacy in his three cubs,” the zoo said in a statement.
I found the story fascinating because every time I logged onto any social media site or newspaper site, this story confronted me. It got me thinking. Why did she change so much and what triggered her attack to a point where the damage could not be undone? In addition, if the occurrence had been the other way around, with the male lion being the aggressor, would it have garnered so much attention or coverage? My conclusion was no. To further buttress my assertion, I asked others, who also concluded that if the gender had been male, the attention to the news would not have been so protracted and heavily covered.

I then juxtaposed this situation to the workplace and how men and women are viewed, especially at the managerial level and above. In doing this, I conducted research, one of which was by Everwise, their publication titled, “How Does Gender Bias Really Affect Women in the Workplace”. The publication discussed the fact that, “assertive, confident, and dominant are just some of the characteristics associated with leadership, yet when we think of employees that have those traits, we generally tend to think of men. The reasoning is years of hardwiring from a biological and anthropological history of women playing the role of nurturing caregiver.

And sure women work differently than men, leaning towards a more collaborative style, but how does gender bias really affect women in the workplace?”
As I read each variation of the lioness and lion story in the various publications, it was clear to me that just like what happens in the workplace where the men are seen as being ambitious and assertive and women as supportive and nurturing has shaped what is expected of women was exactly what was playing out in the unfortunate situation.

Plenty of research has been conducted on the roles women are expected to play and when it seems out of the ‘norm’ or ‘expectations’ indicated above, the situation becomes uncomfortable or as in this case sensational.

Sheryl Sandberg noted in her article, “Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee,” where she evaluated the role of women as helpers in the office. She said, women will offer help more often in a communal setting making it easy for their contributions to disappear. In a study by New York University psychologist, Madeline Heilman, participants evaluated the performance of male and female employees who did or did not stay late to help their colleagues. After offering identical help, a man’s offer to help was rated 14% more favorable than a woman’s and conversely, when both men and women declined to help, the woman was rated 12% lower than that of a man’s.”

Everwise goes on to say, “The role of office helper seeps into tasks such as note taking, fetching coffee, mentoring young workers, or cleaning and organizing the office. Such role relegations stick women in a rut, often supporting C-level suites executives, difficult to rise above their delegated roles and be considered for promotions.” When women do not exhibit the character trait of helper, or want more, they are seen as being contrary and not good team players.

To further complicate matters, men and women are given different performance expectations despite the fact that the work requirements are the same. The expectation is that male workers are expected to be assertive, confident and domineering and when they lack these character traits they are advised to work on developing these traits. But, when women exhibit these same traits they are called aggressive and told to tone it down.

According to Everwise, “in a study where a total of 248 reviews from 180 people were collected, 58.9% of reviews for men contained critical feedback compared with 87.9% of the reviews received by women. And though men and women were both given constructive feedback, women received feedback that also included suggestions to “pipe down.” The feedback included observed personal traits as coming off too aggressive, abrasive, watching their tone, taking a step back to let others shine, and to be less judgmental.

Another study conducted by Yale University found that others, especially those in power, view women who talked a lot negatively. Finding them “domineering and controlling,” and consequently less suitable for leadership positions than men who spoke the same amount. Though such traits are often associated with leadership skills, when applied to women, are seen as a negative.”

The resultant observation is that women who go against these stereotypes are seen as violating their roles as women and punished. It is usually a no win situation, women who showcase their abilities, are seen as not being modest, those who are skilled negotiators are seen as violating passivity, and if you dare get angry that’s a complete no, no. Whereas in a man, it would be called a strength.

Many of the bias situations I have indicated above, are usually done unconsciously. Organizations are manned by people who have been conditioned by their cultural backgrounds and societal norms and these traits leak into the workplace. A lot of these biases are hidden and bleed into performance evaluations, first impressions, likability, promotions, job assignments, etc.

Companies need to actively review their work space to create a balanced, fair and open environment and encourage women to overcome these situations without going into extremes like our lioness to overcome how they have been positioned.