Warning: sex stereotypes at work

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Published by
Jan Hills
October 24, 2017

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Young people joining the workforce tell us they are shocked and disappointed to find that gender bias is still alive and raising its overbearing voice in workplaces the length and breadth of the country. Many young women in particular would like to believe that gender bias is over-hyped.

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You may need to be convinced, so let’s just quickly cover the basics of what gender bias is, what does it look like at work, what’s the evidence that it still persists, and if it is still around… why is it so difficult to root out?

What our clients tell us

The Gender in the Workplace survey carried out by Head Heart + Brain surveyed the work experiences just over 1,000 men and women aged from 16 to 70 in a range of organisations and industries around the world. The responses included this comment from a 47 year-old woman who runs a business unit in the pharmaceutical industry: “Unsurprisingly, women do not do well where the subjective nature of potential is evaluated by male-dominated groups who just don’t see women as ‘young versions of themselves.’”
And a 28 year-old man told us that what is needed to stop gender bias is: “Role-modelling from senior officials, feminist allies to call out sexist behaviour, and reverse mentoring from younger staff members of the opposite gender.”

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We define a stereotype as a cognitive “shortcut” that categorises people based on characteristics such as gender, race, or age.

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Sex stereotypes: surviving and kicking

More than 40 years after the UK’s ground-breaking Sex Discrimination Act came into law, this feels like it should be yesterday’s battle: one that a previous generation of feminists have fought and won.

There are now women heading up the UK’s FTSE 100 companies – though only seven of them. As is so depressingly pointed out, there are still twice as many men named John who are CEOs or chairmen of FTSE 100s as there are women of any name.

It’s no longer acceptable for leaders to suggest that women are out of place at work, or that they just don’t have the chops to make it to the top. Although that of course doesn’t stop some of them. Witness the furore when self-confessed chauvinist Nobel prize-winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt said in 2015 that women in science labs were a distraction, and tended to burst into tears. He resigned after the devastatingly effective (and hilariously funny) #DistractinglySexy twitterstorm by senior women scientists.

But it’s still an uphill battle. It’s still easy to undermine progressive action with accusations of “political correctness”. (Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, said the response to Tim Hunt’s comments had been an “overreaction” and it was not wrong to point out “gender differences”.)

And all of this is because of the persistence of workplace stereotypes, we argue.

What is a “stereotype”?

We define a stereotype as a cognitive “shortcut” that categorises people based on characteristics such as gender, race, or age. They are a type of bias which is a semi-permanent belief formed by repeated exposure to pictures or connections made between, for example, people and places, or people and situations. We unconsciously memorise the association, creating the stereotype in our minds.

What both men and women come up against are deeply ingrained stereotypes of how people at work (and in most social situations) are expected to behave. Stereotypes come with a whole host of assumptions, and when those assumptions are challenged they cause people to behave in a way designed to keep the belief in place. Research has found people will filter information, find excuses and even deny their own observations rather than change their stereotypical belief.

It’s this attempt to keep the stereotypes in place, to maintain the beliefs which result in explicit discrimination, implicit bias and other behaviour which treats women in a different (and usually unbeneficial) way to men.

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It’s this attempt to keep the stereotypes in place, to maintain the beliefs which result in explicit discrimination, implicit bias and other behaviour which treats women in a different (and usually unbeneficial) way to men.

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What workplace stereotypes look like

For example, men at work, especially men in senior positions, are expected to have a strong point of view and an authoritative (some would say forceful, or aggressive) way of expressing it. They’re expected to be strategic and to be willing to take risks. Men who don’t exhibit these characteristics may be thought of as “lacking drive,” and “not forceful enough” to be leadership material.

Women, by contrast, are expected to be collaborative and concerned about relationships, and focused on the team achieving things collectively rather than individual achievements. If they press their point of view, or are unapologetic about their personal ambition they may be seen as “pushy”, “overbearing” and “not a team player.”

Stereotypes are so pervasive, and their influence so pernicious, that it’s important to understand how they work and why they persist long after they have ceased to be “acceptable.”

How stereotypes are created

Consider this short account of someone recounting their journey to work this morning:

The argument with the head of technology was still on my mind when I found myself slamming on the brakes in my car to avoid a collision: a driver had stopped with no warning to drop off their child, just in front of me. I was still shaking as I carried on to deliver my screaming child with the childminder. It was a stressful morning and it had barely started.

Now quickly look at the images you’ve had in your mind’s eye:

  • Was the head of technology a male?
  • Was the bad driver female?
  • Was the narrator female? And the childminder?

This is implicit bias and it’s hardly surprising in 2017, considering how embedded it is even in online media. A Google search for “doctor” + “images” returns 75% male pictures (just over half the GPs in the UK are women).

These stereotypes are the result of how our brains work. Nobel award-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman described the two styles of processing in the brain as System 1 and System 2: System 1 uses mental shortcuts to process vast amounts of data before engaging System 2, our slower, rational brain.

Life is fast, we need to work quickly; when we’re making decisions our quick-thinking System 1 often jumps to conclusions without checking in with the rational System 2. A quick decision can be helpful but it can be based on assumptions that are outdated. That’s what sustains gender bias, and just being aware of it won’t change it. You need to create a conscious intention to check your decisions, or have someone else who thinks differently help you to do that.

Early conditioning: boys take up more space

Our stereotypes are deeply ingrained because they’re imprinted early. For example: Harvard Business School psychologist Amy Cuddy, who is currently studying body language, has observed that men are more likely to use expansive postures and open gestures. In the workplace these gestures – taking up room, using wide arm gestures, standing with legs spread – are associated with confidence and have become associated with masculine leaders.

Amy Cuddy’s research identifies the age at which children start to associate expansive posture with males and contractive posture with females. It’s very young: around four years old. Cuddy has shown that children believe that wooden dolls in expansive postures are boys and that wooden dolls in contractive postures are girls. And a documentary series The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds revealed how children already had fixed ideas of male and female behaviour, capabilities and roles.

The brain loves to categorise

Whenever we encounter someone for the first time we automatically categorise them into a mental in-group (of people we see as being like ourselves) or an out-group (the people who are somehow different from us). This categorisation can take as little as 30milliseconds and happens totally outside of conscious thought – in fact before we have even consciously registered anything about the person.

Once the categorisation is made we react positively to our in-group and are less well-disposed to the out-group, and this response, which was protective in early evolution, is problematic in modern organisational culture. We tend to objectify the out-group and over-empathise with our in-group. And the associated features of the numerous sub-categories (“boys wearing hoodies are likely to be muggers,” “people with regional accents are less well-educated,” “men who went to Oxbridge are leadership material”) are the stereotypes which are the basis of discrimination.

The power of implicit associations

These stereotypes, or implicit associations, seem to exist whatever our explicit beliefs and intentions, and that’s because they’re formed by our environment, in associative memory. It’s an effortless way of learning, but it has drawbacks.  If we repeatedly see women pushing vacuum cleaners, being helped to carry heavy objects, or giggling at assertive male behaviour, our memory stores the associations. If we continually see men holding sports trophies, or hear them expressing strong opinions in meetings, or interrupting female colleagues, we store those memories too.

You can explore your own implicit associations by taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test online.

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The reason why it’s so hard to overcome the stereotypes we’ve created is that we like to be right. Being right, or feeling assured that we’ve made the right judgement,

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Being right is rewarding

The reason why it’s so hard to overcome the stereotypes we’ve created is that we like to be right. Being right, or feeling assured that we’ve made the right judgement, feels good at a neurological level – it activates the brain’s reward circuitry. We ignore our biases and are quick to justify our prejudices because to acknowledge them would feel actively unpleasant.

How does this actually work in the brain? Studies have shown that when people are doing a task that is boring and with no monetary reward, just doing the task correctly activates the areas of the brain linked to feelings of reward – the ventral striatum. And we get that pleasure of being right both when we are right and when we just believe we’re right.

Being wrong (like being caught wrong-footed, or finding ourselves in the socially-unacceptable opinion group) feels bad. It activates the brain’s “pain system” (the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula) which generate negative emotions such as anger and frustration and “social pain”.

Feeling good when we’re right, and pain when we’re wrong means we’re motivated to move on and not dig too deeply into decisions. None of us like to think of ourselves as biased. But just as most of us probably pictured a male head of technology in the journey-to-work anecdote, a study by Vanderbilt University’s Cecilia Mo found implicit bias among both women and men. Using an Implicit Association Test she found even people who describe themselves as feminists still have a slight tendency – on average – to associate men with leadership.

Regardless of our sincerely-held beliefs, implicit biases can creep into our thinking and our decision-making, working against our own identities, and even our own careers.

These stereotypes, or implicit associations, seem to exist whatever our explicit beliefs and intentions, and that’s because they’re formed by our environment, in associative memory. It’s an effortless way of learning, but it has drawbacks.

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Once a stereotype has been adopted, it becomes a filter through which we selectively recall and use information.

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Once a stereotype has been adopted, it becomes a filter through which we selectively recall and use information. A study by Kevin Dickson, at Southeast Missouri State University and Alicia Lorenz, found that people retain their stereotypical views, even when their personal experience presents evidence contradicting a stereotype.

Not all women are girly, not all men are blokes

In recognising the advantages of stereotypically male behaviour in the world of work, there’s a tendency to conflate gender and assume that all men are blokey blokes and all women are feminine. The truth is that “feminine” traits can be part of a man’s style and “masculine” traits can be part of a woman’s.

How women are perceived has consequences for their performance evaluations, work relationships and promotion. If they match the stereotype they may be liked but not seen as competent, says psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues; if they demonstrate more masculine traits they may be judged as competent but not liked. And other research has found men who display more feminine behaviours characteristics get judged as less competent in the same way that women do.

In their study of the workplace, mother-and-daughter researchers Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey found that 73% of women interviewed reported problems finding a balance between being seen as too feminine or too masculine. And though the media would have us believe that it’s hard-ass women who succeed in business, nearly twice as many successful business women (66%) reported having problems related to being too feminine, such as being described as too soft, too collaborative and not assertive enough, compared with 34% being seen as too masculine.

Playing to the stereotype

But do we have a choice about whether we adhere to stereotypes or not?  The work of Judith Butler at University of California, Berkeley, suggests masculine and feminine behaviour is all a “performance” based on socialisation and society’s expectations, and that we don’t have to act in this prescribed manner. “When we say gender is performed,” Butler explains, “we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role or we’re acting in some way and that our acting or our role playing is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world.”
Evidence of this “performance” also comes from studies by Stacy Sinclair from Princeton University who has found that people “tune in” to a situation and comply with what they believe are the expectations of the others involved. Self-conceptions adjust to create a shared reality. So, when the expectations of us are stereotypical, our behaviour follows suit.

For example, one group of women were told they were going to meet with a charming, sexist man, who thought women should be cared for and protected. They subsequently rated themselves as more stereotypically feminine, and were judged to behave in more stereotypical ways when they met the man (an actor), compared with another group of women who were expecting to interact with a man with more contemporary views.

This social tuning only seems to happen when there is motivation for a good relationship. So, a man for example might feel compelled to adjust their behaviour to fit with more macho male colleagues, or a woman may be susceptible to “fluttering her eyelashes” at work when she needs to impress?

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Some women believed that playing a stereotypical feminine role helped to build relationships and collaboration and was good for team work. 

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Subverting the stereotypes

Some women believed that playing a stereotypical feminine role helped to build relationships and collaboration and was good for team work. It was also felt to be helpful at the start of a career when they needed to build a reputation for competence and co-operation. One woman acknowledged that she worked the stereotype of women being better at relationships to get herself on a high-profile project that was having issues forming a collaborative working team.

But they were also aware they would have to be prepared to stand their corner when necessary. One participant said holding back until you were sure of your understanding, and then asking the killer question, could be a good method of disarming people and building a reputation for being highly competent, especially in a technical role.

Many of the respondents in our survey were quite willing to turn the stereotypes to their own advantage when they saw an opportunity. Not quite “playing the dumb blonde,” but one woman told us she allowed her prejudiced male colleagues to assume she was no good at maths because to have demonstrated her ability would have been threatening to them.

We may have our own views of whether it’s acceptable to use a stereotypical assumption to your advantage; these participants felt it went some way to redressing the balance of stereotypes that worked against them.

 

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