What Gender Stereotypes Really Mean in the Workplace and How to Overcome Them
Susan Fleming is a senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, specializing in entrepreneurship and women in leadership. She’s a veteran of Wall Street and no stranger to the challenges that women run up against in the workforce.
As part of our Women in Leadership webcast series, Fleming sat down with eCornell’s Chris Wofford to discuss the difficult tightrope that women are expected to walk and to dish out advice for how best to navigate situations why gender biases may be at play.
Fleming: Today I’m going to talk about some of the biases and barriers women in leadership roles face as well as some strategies for overcoming them.
I find that when I kick off these presentations, it’s useful to share some information about the current status of women in leadership, at least in the US. Today, women make up just under 50 percent of the US workforce. They also make up more than 50 percent of managerial and professional positions — meaning mid-management and lower middle management positions.
One might logically think that if women are half the population, make up half the workforce and half of the managerial and professional positions, they must also make up half of the leadership positions. But I probably wouldn’t be giving a talk on this if that were the case.
I’m curious to see what our audience might know in terms of the representation of women in a few sectors of our society, the first being Congress, the second being law firm partners and the third being board directors and CEOs within the Standard & Poor’s 500.
Wofford: We’ve got the guesses coming in now. Looks like the audience thinks the percentage of current female Congressional representatives is around 10 percent.
Fleming: The correct answer is that, as of 2015, women made up about 20 percent of the Senate and 19 percent of the House. So when you think that women are half of the population, clearly things aren’t where you might expect them to be on that front.
I often get asked how the United States stacks up against other countries in this. There are 190 direct-election countries in the world and the United States is actually ranked 72nd. Just to give you a bit of context, we are just below Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Greece, and Kenya. And just above Kyrgyzstan and Slovakia.
We often hear our politicians say that we’re the greatest democracy on the planet. To me, democracy would include both genders.
Wofford: Indeed. Do you want to look at law firm partners next?
Fleming: It looks like for the most part, the audience poll is showing answers between 2 and 20 percent. They are pretty much on the mark there. Women account for just under 20 percent of law firm partners. In some ways, you might say there has been a significant increase back from 1995, when women were at about 13 percent. That is a huge increase but it’s a little disheartening with all of the change that you see in our society to only see it go from 13 percent to just under 20 during that time.
Wofford: How did our audience do in guessing the percentage of women in leadership positions within the S&P?
Fleming: Well, two percent was the most popular answer and they pretty much nailed it. When it comes to S&P 500 CEOs, women make up 4.6 percent. Again, there has actually been huge progress mathematically on that. When I first started teaching this, it was one percent. On the board seat side, the answer is about 19 percent.
Wofford: So why are these numbers are so low?
Fleming: There are many complicated reasons. There’s no one thing. It can’t simply be ascribed to discrimination or bias or this idea that women want to have babies. There is a very complicated set of dynamics that are going on culturally and socially that are at play.
The one thing that I really want to focus on today in particular is gender bias and stereotyping.
Gender beliefs, probably more than most people realize, are incredibly powerful in shaping our culture, in shaping the business world, in shaping our behavior and the way that we go about our daily lives.
Part of the reason for that is that gender is the dominant basis for categorization, across virtually all social contexts. Just to give you an example, when you walk into a room of people you don’t know, the first thing that you categorize people on is gender. The next one could be race, it could be class, it could be age, and so on. But gender wins pretty much across the board in every culture.
Another thing that is very important for people to understand is that when you bring up the word stereotyping, and you start talking about bigotry, you get people very concerned and feeling defensive. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Most of this is unconscious. Stereotyping is a type of cognitive shortcut. So when we walk into that room, we don’t have the mental energy or time to differentiate everything about everyone in the room, yet we want to behave appropriately. So we use those cognitive shortcuts in order to guide our behavior.
The downside of stereotypes is that all of those associations that we make, while they might be right and they might be useful, they might also be wrong. So if you walk into a meeting assessing a woman, you might immediately associate feminine characteristics as being more communal and less aggressive. But perhaps the woman is more aggressive than you expected, so you’re reacting to her in a way that is different than you would react to her if she were a man. That’s where stereotypes get us in trouble.
Wofford: So even though these things sort of spring into mind subconsciously, they can still affect how you respond to a given situation?
Fleming: Right. I want to talk a little bit about the content of gender stereotypes, and I thought it could be fun to ask the audience to provide one word that’s a stereotypical description of a woman.
Wofford: Okay, let’s see what we got. The first three all say ‘emotional.’
Fleming: That always comes up but, wow, three in a row?
Wofford: Here come some more: controlling, nurturing, bitchy, soft, timid, communicative, sweet, nice, intelligent, weak, sensitive.
Fleming: Look, here we have “unassertive” and “bossy” right next to each other — that’s interesting.
I can see some more are continuing to roll in, but what you see is that many of the stereotypes fall into what we call communal characteristics. And then you see that people list all of these negative words that are applied to women when they violate that communal stereotype. That’s where you get bitchy, controlling, overly assertives.
Wofford: All of which would probably be considered assets for a male, right?
Fleming: For males, it would be an asset. So that’s kind of the content of gender stereotypes and they do change over time, but mostly you see the same answers.
The problem with stereotypes is not so much around description, it’s when they become prescriptive. Those prescriptive stereotypes are what give rise to the comments we saw in the chat box. Controlling, too assertive, pushy, those kinds of things.
We’ve just talked about typical stereotypes about women and men. When it comes to stereotypes about leaders, they tend to fall into the masculine category. Numerous studies across many different countries, different age groups, etc. have consistently demonstrated that when individuals think of the typical leader or manager, they think of a male. They think of those male characteristics. So when you see that aggressive male leader – confident, intelligent, decisive, exercising authority – the world feels right. In contrast, when you consider a female leader, you have inconsistent stereotypes being triggered.
A female leader is supposed to be strong and authoritative, know her stuff, hold her ground and speak her mind, but while doing that, she is simultaneously also supposed to come off as sweet, supportive, nice, communal, kind and gentle — all of those expectations of what an appropriate woman is supposed to be. As a woman who’s worked in the business world, that’s really hard to do simultaneously and the failure to do that triggers a lot of bad things for women leaders. That inconsistency contributes to prejudice against female leaders.
If the female leader is too communal, she’s seen as a poor leader and too weak. If they’re too agentic, they’re seen as competent but they’re unlikable and for women, likeability is a requirement for success. For men, it’s nice to be likeable but there’s a lot more leeway for a man than a woman to be likable and be tough.
That creates what we call the Double Bind, which is having to walk a tightrope between being simultaneously assertive and smart in order to be seen as competent while simultaneously being nice and warm in order to meet stereotypes of communality. The people that don’t navigate that tight rope well will be either labeled as an incompetent or as a bitch.
Wofford: It seems like a no-win situation.
Fleming: I like to use the Sarah Palin – Hillary Clinton illustration. The political media painted Clinton as the bitchy and unlikable one while Palin was the incompetent bimbo. So women in politics often get painted into one corner or the other.
There was a really funny clip recently on Jimmy Fallon where Hillary Clinton was on and he had her give a talk and he critiqued it by saying, “No, you’re being too loud.” “No, you’re being too quiet.” “Could you be a little less pushy?” or “You’ve gotta want it more.”
Wofford: You hear others say she should smile more.
Fleming: Right, exactly. Fallon said that too and then she smiled and he’s like, “Come on.” So, it was illustrating that Double Bind. It’s a funny clip.
The Double Bind is really important but I also want to touch on some other stereotypes about women’s competence. There are a lot of stereotypes about other things, around women’s commitment, around their credibility, around their organizational fit, but what I really want to touch on is competence.
Women are perceived to be generally less competent than men. The difference isn’t huge but it’s there and it will particularly show up when you’re dealing with male-type tasks. But it’s also true on gender-neutral tasks. In experimental studies where people are assessed doing a general neutral task, women will be assessed lower despite the exact same performance. That’s because there’s bias that they’re less competent.
There was a study in which an identical essay was put out but when you attached a woman’s name as the author, the essay was rated lower even though it was identical to the one bearing the man’s name.
Another barrier that women have to deal with is what we call shifting standards for evaluating men and women. Some researchers did a study on hiring for the position of police chief, which is a very male-typed position typically. They created two resumes, one that had more experience and one that had more education. They then pre-tested them with no names on them and they were evaluated as fairly equivalent. Then they put a woman’s name on the one with more education and a man’s name on the experience one. When they asked people which one they would pick, they picked the man and they justified their decision by saying he had more experience.
Then they flipped the names so that the woman’s resume had more experience and they still said they’d hire the man. Why? Because he had more education. That’s shifting the standards. Because of these unconscious biases, there is an answer they want to get to and they’ll change their perception of the facts in order to get to the answer that makes them comfortable.
Wofford: And these unconscious biases are something that we all have? Can they be overcome?
Fleming: We all have them. One of the things that I find really insidious is that people will use stereotypes to set expectations for themselves and guide their own behavior. Before anyone else can tell them they can’t do something, they’ve already said, “Well, I was really good at math and I’m interested in it, but women aren’t so good at math or computer science or whatever, so I don’t think I’m going to be good at that.” And so they don’t even try, they opt out into different tracks.
Everyone has biases. The goal is to be aware of them so that you can stop yourself from using them unfairly. I would ask you all to be particularly mindful of this when you’re in a context where you are hiring others or you’re evaluating people for promotion or you’re assessing who should get an opportunity in the workplace. You owe an extra level of attention to make sure you’re not using those stereotypes unconsciously.
And don’t apply stereotypes to yourself. When you’re considering career advancement, you might be unwittingly limiting your own opportunities.
Wofford: I think that’s great advice. Do you have any other pearls of wisdom you want to share before we run out of time?
Fleming: Just a couple other things. If you’re a woman, you need to develop a communication style that responds to the reality of the double bind. Truthfully, I don’t like giving this advice and I’d rather see every individual be authentic and be themselves. I’m a real kind of go-getter, I’m loud, I speak up a lot. I don’t like having to dial back and to sort of be less authentic but I have had to do that at times in order to advance.
I think that one of the great ways to start to change the culture to allow more women into leadership positions is to get into the leadership positions to begin with. You’ve got to get that cycle going and if that means that you have to dial it back and maybe bite your tongue on occasion, that’s an okay thing to do in my view. Then over time, you can hopefully drive change by helping to make more women leaders.
Wofford: So there are compromises that still need to be made before we get to where we want to be?
Fleming: I’m a big fan of changing society, changing culture, changing perceptions and getting rid of stereotypes — but in the meantime, you also have to survive.
When I’m teaching MBAs and teaching undergraduates who are about to go into the workforce, I say to them, “This is your own personal choice. You have to read the environment and read the culture of the organization. But be mindful of how you’re being perceived and mindful that it will be different than the way a man is being perceived who’s doing the exact same thing. And you have to decide if you want to tone it down or not.” That’s their call.
Wofford: Thank you Susan, this has been great.
Fleming: Thanks for having me.
Want to hear more? This article is based on Susan Fleming’s live eCornell WebSeries event, Bias, Barriers and Strategies for Overcoming Them. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Women in Leadership topics.
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