Stereotypes at work: Do women buy into them just as much as the next guy?

woman thinking - pipelineIf you are a successful professional woman in financial or big business, you could find yourself labeled an alpha male or a diva or worse. If you show empathy regularly, you could be labeled a weak leader.

These are the labels we are given but are they justified? Catalyst’s study – Women “take care”, men “take charge” – found that stereotypic biases are often inaccurate and leave women in a weak position; undermined by their followers and seen by their leaders as less effective leaders compared to their male peers by both men and women in their firm. Do we therefore have the right to peel off these labels, shake off the stereotypes and define who we really are ourselves?

While generalizations and stereotypes may offer time saving benefits, the study showed that they are negatively influencing women’s careers and thereby the diversity of our workforces. Psychologists agree for three main reasons; unlike things which can sometimes be generalized, human beings are complex and therefore stereotypes miss the mark, the process of stereotyping is automatic and therefore it is hard to differentiate if our final conclusions and assessments have been influenced by stereotypic bias, and finally our behaviors to those being stereotyped could also lead to their behaviors confirming the stereotype – a self-fulfilling prophecy initiated by the situation.

In my head – is it hard wired?

Given the above, why do stereotypes prevail? Yes women and men different, but are these differences really hard wired or are some of these stereotypes fed by the cultures and systems in which we develop?

Stanford University’s Professor Jo Boaler, through her work on how both girls and boys are taught math, argues that it is in fact the latter. Although girls and boys perform equally well up to high school, many girls choose to stop math and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related subjects. Society therefore concludes that girls are less able in math and the stereotype lives on. To address this stereotype, Boaler says that policymakers and educators should look to focus on the classrooms and how math is taught rather than “fix the girls”. By teaching math in a way which encourages collaboration with peers to solve problems, improvements have been seen in the results of both girls and boys.

The issue of women at leadership and executive levels can best be addressed holistically if we start at schools. If girls are narrowing their career options before university, because they aren’t being taught and encouraged in a way that develops their abilities, this constrains our ability to address the existing workforce diversity challenges.

So if it’s not in our head because we can be just as able as our male peers, how do such stereotypes come to dominate in our societies and organizations?

In your head – can you see me as I am, NOT as how you want to see me?

A 2010 Harvard Business School paper by Amy J. Cuddy et al, demonstrates the influence of culture in shaping gender stereotypes. In one of their studies, Americans rated men as less interdependent than women but Koreans rated women as less interdependent than men, “deviating from the universal gender stereotypes of male independence.” Their other study showed that American students rated their male peers more highly across all the traits (e.g. ambitiousness, sociability) they were told were the most important cultural values at their colleges. The paper concludes that men “serve as cultural ideals”; irrespective of the culture, men are seen to have more of the culturally valued traits than women.

This is significant. It means that we are defining our cultures based on male traits, which in turn means that women are always categorized as less able in the traits we value as demonstrated in the “think manager, think male” research.

At an organizational level, should we therefore be surprised that our leadership teams are male dominated? Another Catalyst study found that men are viewed as “default leaders”, while women are seen as “atypical leaders”, leading to three “double-bind dilemmas” for women: extreme perceptions (either too soft or too tough), high competence threshold / lower rewards, competent but disliked.

We haven’t been hard wired to be less able, yet these stereotypes persist in our organizations and negatively shape the diversity across our workforce. What should we be doing to avoid being stereotyped or at least mitigate the impact of negative stereotypic bias?

To the stereotyped – off with the old label, in with the “me”

Stereotype threat, the anxiety an individual feels not to conform to stereotypes, can lead to decreased concentration and thereby impact our performance, so actively dealing with stereotyping during your career is important. This is not about being paranoid about stereotyping, but about taking practical steps to address it in such a way that you can have a successful and sustainable career.

1. Open your eyes

The Catalyst study found that both men and women who reported into a female leader were more likely to hold more stereotypical views of women than their peers who reported into male leaders. Despite female leaders demonstrating behaviors that contradicted stereotypes, their direct reports tended to ignore these, allowing the stereotypes to influence their assessments of the female leaders. You have a role to play in blocking the infiltration of stereotypes in our organizations. If you cannot start by removing your stereotypic bias, the stereotype will live on and impact you when you become a leader.

2. Ask to be seen as you are

If colleagues incorrectly label you or other female colleagues due to stereotypic bias, ask them to explain why they have applied that label. Colleague: “She is such a diva”. You: “Please could you help me understand how she demonstrated diva-like behavior.” It quickly becomes apparent that those diva-like behaviors are what a male colleague had also demonstrated but had been labeled as “go-getter” behaviors. Transparent discussion is required to raise awareness around stereotyping. It’s the only way to be seen as you are, rather than how people want to see you.

3. Don’t be held back

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg says, “We can define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our person passion, talents and interests.” Yes, our organizations’ leaders have to address stereotypic bias through training and raising awareness, but as individuals we should not feel constrained by the incorrect labels that we are currently tagged with. We have every right to peel off the “diva”, “weak leader”, “aggressive alpha male”, “atypical leader” labels, demonstrate our true abilities, and be rewarded accordingly.

By Nneka Orji