- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Companies need to break the spell of gender stereotypes

Two weeks ago I wrote how a new study from Catalyst highlighted that despite their best efforts, women see their careers evolve following performance criteria different from those of men. This is largely because women are judged by stereotypes. Forbes recently published an interesting article on the subject: the “10 Worst Stereotypes About Powerful Women”.

There is no doubt that gender stereotyping in the workplace often leads to discrimination. Gender discrimination, undesirable in any form, can range from unequal pay for women for equal work, to being overlooked for promotion, and worse still, to sexual harassment. Such negative behaviour is still very prevalent in many of today’s workplaces.

But it is not only men who perpetuate such behaviour. Valerie Young, Ed.D., author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women was quoted in Forbes as saying: “Women are being judged more, even by other women.” The article goes on to point out that while male leaders can be complex characters, powerful women, by contrast, are categorised into stereotypes that serve only to undermine them and their power.

Many of the stereotypes that Forbes lists are contradictory. It has often been said that women are always judged negatively no matter what they do.

– You’re either too emotional or you’re an “ice queen”.
– You’re either too weak or you’re too tough and angry.
– You’re either too feminine or you’re too masculine.
– You’re either distracted by motherhood or you’re single and lonely.
– You’re either politically naïve or you’re scheming and manipulative.
– You don’t have the skills, you are just there to fill the quota.
– You don’t have any serious responsibilities. You are just a “cheerleader” for the “real” managers.

Most people are not aware of how stereotyping automatically influences their thinking and, therefore, believe that their perceptions are based on objective observations. In his last editorial, the diversity expert, Michael Stuber observes that: “For the dominant mainstream group many aspects are so implicit and given that they won’t even consider anyone’s responsibility for corporate cultural norms – let alone their own ability to change any aspect of it.”

Gender stereotyping leads to discrimination that unfairly challenges women’s success in the workplace. Regulations alone are not enough to stop the problem so companies need to implement their own programmes.

So what can organisations do to stamp out stereotyping? There are several courses of action that they could adopt:

– Educating managers and employers on the detrimental effects of stereotyping.
– Teaching employees at all levels about stereotypes and placing them in gender-balanced groups.
– Implementing objective performance evaluation standards with clear rules explaining how evaluation criteria are measured.
– Portraying images that contradict stereotypes.

“Ultimately, it’s the companies that suffer. Developing and retaining the best talent is key to remaining competitive in the global business world,” said Ilene L. Lang, President of Catalyst back in 2005. “Until we break the spell of stereotyping, companies will continue to sub-optimize women and lose a vital talent pool—one they, frankly, cannot afford to ignore.”

Her words still ring true today.