Written by Eden B. King Friday, July 22 2011
Most people would like to believe that coworkers and bosses have moved beyond the idea of men and women as Mars and Venus. The unfortunate truth, however, is that everybody holds strong beliefs about what men and women can and should be and do. These beliefs may be completely unconscious or seem perfectly benign, but at the end of the day they are generalizations about men (“Men won’t ask for help”) and women (“Women are needy”) that may not apply to any one particular man or woman. Such generalizations are particularly problematic in the workplace, where stereotypes about women can translate into fewer promotions, lower pay, and harassment.
Decades of social science research have documented the problems that arise from gender stereotypes. A study led by S.T. Fiske and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, revealed that people across the world tend to believe that women are higher in warmth (kindness, compassion) and lower in competence (ability, confidence) than men.
Social science research has also shown that these beliefs get in the way of women’s success in the workplace, where competence is valued more than warmth. In one study by M. Bertrand and S. Mullainathan, people who read a résumé from “Aisha” were less likely to give her a job than were people who read the exact same resume from “Brad.”
In another study led by M.E. Heilman and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, people gave bigger bonuses to men who helped a colleague than they did to women who did exactly the same thing. In one of my own studies published in the Journal of Management, I found that decision makers gave men better developmental work opportunities than they did women with identical qualifications.
Luckily, social science research has also begun to highlight some of the solutions to gender stereotyping. Here are three science-based strategies for overcoming stereotypes:
Counteract Others’ Stereotypes. Given the generalizations that decision makers in a company likely hold about women, it may be important for women to separate themselves from gender stereotypes. One strategy that social scientists S.L. Singletary and M.R. Hebl studied involved providing “individuating information.” This means that women can share something about themselves that makes it clear that they should not be lumped in with “stereotypical” women.
Of particular importance for women at work is the need to demonstrate competence. One way to do this is by slightly shifting communication styles. Women should not be afraid to use eye contact, firm handshakes, or to sit at the head of the table when they are in charge.
In addition, women should avoid using “hedging” statements (saying things such as, “I’m not sure, but…”); be more direct in requests of subordinates (“Please make five copies” rather than “If you’re not too busy, it would be great if you could make five copies”); and refrain from apologizing and deflecting credit (saying something like, “Thanks, but it was nothing”).
These are nonverbal and verbal strategies that can communicate authority and assertiveness, thereby dispelling beliefs of incompetence, explained D. Tannen in the book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.
However, a caveat is important here. Research also shows that women who are extremely competent leaders may be seen as lacking in some of the stereotypically feminine characteristics. Yup, that’s right – there can be backlash when women embody masculine traits. Heilman’s research suggested that when competence is clearly and undeniably established, women may benefit from emphasizing more nurturing, communal, or feminine aspects of their personalities.
Talking about one’s own family or offering sympathy for a subordinate’s personal challenges might help to circumvent this backlash. The delicate balance between being feminine “enough” without being “too” feminine is a tricky one that should be handled carefully.
Counteract One’s Own Stereotypes. It is vital women recognize that women also hold stereotypes about women. And perhaps even more importantly, women’s stereotypes about women affect women’s behavior. For example, because women believe that they should be warm or people-oriented, they don’t want to engage in selfish endeavors that do not benefit others. One such “selfish” effort, according to E.T. Amanatullah and M.W. Morris in an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is asking for a raise. Women are less likely than men to initiate negotiations.
A series of studies on entitlement led by B. Major and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed important differences in what men and women think they deserve. First, participants made note of what they thought they should earn for a particular amount of work. The results showed that women paid themselves less money than did men. Second, another group of study participants were told to work as long and as hard as they wanted for a particular amount of money. The women in this study worked longer and did higher quality work than did the men. This study implied that women need to recognize that they are entitled to equal pay for equal work, and they need to ask for it.
In addition, women should be aware that stereotypes can influence the types of jobs and projects they pursue. Research on a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” showed that women sometimes confirm the stereotypes that other people hold of them.
For example, in one study by P.G. Davies and colleagues and published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,” women watched commercials in which female characters either (a) dreamed of becoming a homecoming queen or (b) talked on a cell phone. Women in the “gender stereotypical” condition were less likely than those in the “neutral” condition to volunteer to lead a subsequent task.
Fortunately, research by R.B. McIntyre and colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that reminding themselves of successful women who are not stereotypic can make women less vulnerable to the effects of stereotype threat.
Network Strategically. Many people find jobs through friends of friends or other acquaintances, and most simply can’t do their work without other people. Indeed, the power of professional networks in finding a job and doing a job is incontrovertible. Here too, however, there are important gender differences.
One study of men and women working for a newspaper publishing company showed that women tend to be less central in the organizational networks and less connected with upper-level managers than men. These sorts of network positions were related to promotions; ultimately, women were less likely to be promoted than men three years later.
Women interested in advancing in organizations, then, need to position themselves at the center of social networks and make connections to at least one person in the decision-making circle of the network.
One way to make these sorts of network connections is to find both male and female mentors. Whereas female mentors tend to provide female mentees with extremely important forms of social support, male mentors tend to provide mentees better access to career-enhancing networks.
Breaking into the “good old boy” network may be a good way to ensure personal success. The results of a study of MBA graduates by K.S. Lyness and D.E Thomas and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggested that people who have white male mentors make more money and have had more promotions than those who have only female or minority male mentors. Women should keep in mind that when they become one of those decision-makers, they should strive to ensure that women and minorities have equal access to powerful networks.
I sincerely hope that these kinds of strategies are eventually irrelevant. In my dream-future world, men and women share the responsibilities of household and childcare labor equally, and beliefs about who is “warmer” and who is “more competent” disappear. But in the meantime, social scientists like me will continue to discover strategies for overcoming the stereotypes that block equality.
Eden B. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of psychology, George Mason University, and coauthor of How Women Can Make it Work: The Science of Success.