Anne Hathaway, Marissa Mayer, Mother Teresa: Perception vs. Reality

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- So when did Women's History Month become Women's Misogyny Month?

  • A simple Google search combining "I hate" with "Marissa Mayers" and "Sheryl Sandberg" yields 1.6 million and 1.8 million hits, and the numbers are growing faster than slime in a pitri dish.
  • Anne Hathaway is the bête noire of every supermarket tabloid, not to mention the victim of a graffiti-enhanced image on the front page of a recent New York Post, which you can see on the newspaper's Google+ page.
  • And even Mother Teresa -- Mother Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner-and-saint-to-be Teresa for crying out loud! -- is receiving uncharitable coverage in The Huffington Post.

What could be next for our prominent "leading ladies"? Witch trials? It's March Madness indeed . . .

Except it isn't!

The recent flurry of unflattering headlines is not about singling out women -- instead, the press is playing to a set of cognitive biases hard-wired into our brains: "framing" and "perceived fairness." A lot of women, especially prominent businesswomen, are simply getting caught in the crossfire.

First off, the concept of framing describes our predisposition to view the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups. Billionaire CEOs, Hollywood celebrities, and Nobel Laureates are three of the world's most exclusive in-groups. Thus, they're forever condemned to live a slip-up away from our antipathy.

Anne Hathaway thinks we're seeing a regular ol' Brooklyn gal mugging for the camera on Oscar night; instead, the "Hatha-haters" -- no, I didn't just make that up -- have framed her as a spoiled, snotty star. But again, and for better or worse, the framing phenomenon applies equally to women and men; frequently impolitic Mark Zuckerberg generates more Google "hate" hits than Sheryl Sandberg.

Secondly, humans crave "fairness" and have a visceral aversion to inequality. Believe it or not, our innate need for equality even trumps our desire for additional cash; we'll often scuttle an otherwise profitable transaction if we believe our counterparty is getting the better end of the deal.

So is it "fair" for a CEO to build a nursery in her executive suite and then prohibit her minions from working from home; or is it "right" for a person to start life on third base, get phenomenally lucky, and then write a book that preaches we can -- and should -- hit a homerun? Well, honestly, who knows . . . . But perception is reality and recent headlines seem to have delivered their verdict.

Punch line -- understanding the causal psychology behind the recent, high-profile missteps of female -- and male -- business leaders can help us all become better managers.  

The Career Iconoclast's Weekly Action Items

1. Think about your professional persona in terms of in-groups and out-groups. If you have an MBA degree, or an MD title, or an MG car, you're pretty much guilty-until-proven-innocent to most of the folks you meet during your day. A one-off, off-hand rebuke to your barista, computer technician or ops guy will pretty much ensure shoddy, surly service -- or worse -- for weeks to come. Thus you need to anticipate appropriately, and react sensitively, to colleagues' negative predispositions.

2. How is it that old-money heiress Brooke Astor, expensively dressed and bejeweled, was always warmly welcomed at homeless shelters in Harlem, while self-made millionaire Martha Stewart is regularly shunned in her own home town, despite her efforts to look and act inconspicuous? Identify the always-pulls-it-off Astors and never-gets-it-right Stewarts among your professional connections. How do they incite, or defuse, the negative stereotypes that threaten to compromise their work? Feel free to share your comments below.

3. Invest 18 minutes to watch this entertaining and informative video on TED to learn more about the cognitive biases of framing, fairness and perception -- and how they can play an important role in developing our private lives and professional careers.

-- Written by Andrew Kosztyo in New York City

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.