Stereotype Straitjackets

Women’s conflict at work and the bias that built it…

People generally think women should be communal – that is, unselfish, friendly, modest, deferential, empathetic, cooperative, and concerned with others. By contrast, people generally think men should be agentic – that is, independent, assertive, forceful, unemotional, decisive, competitive, and risk-taking. Because communal and agentic characteristics are often (incorrectly) believed to be non-overlapping, contrasting qualities, people generally think women should not be agentic and men should not be communal. The behavioural norms laid down by gender stereotypes are enforced through people’s (including members of the stereotyped group) praise and reward of prescribed behaviours.

Women often believe that their career success in gendered workplaces depends on conforming to their organisation’s dominant masculine culture. Because senior male leaders are, by and large, agentic, women believe they also need to be agentic to succeed. The problem is when women behave agentically – forcefully expressing their opinions, taking charge, giving orders, and making assignments – they violate prescribed gender norms and thus they become targets for other women’s incivility.

Studies show that employees who behave in disruptive or provocative ways are much more likely to be subjected to incivility than employees who don’t rock the boat. Agentic women are often seen by other women as disruptive and provocative, casting agentic women in an unfavourable light by behaving in a conspicuously norm-violating and unflattering manner. In an effort to display their displeasure, women who (consciously or unconsciously) believe women should conform to the prescriptive gender norms will often react by distancing themselves from agentic women. This phenomenon, called the “black sheep effect”, allows women to both express their displeasure at the black sheep and make it clear that they are not like those women who violate stereotypical gender norms.

While both women and men generally endorse conformity with prescriptive gender stereotypes, women are more likely than men to see other women as a threat to their social identity. As a result, women resist and derogate agentic women far more than do men. In other words, agentic women are seen as black sheep because they fail to conform to the behavioural norms that dictate what they should be like as women.

Women are particularly likely to impose stereotype straitjackets on their women managers. In a recent study of women’s expectations of their managers, women initially reported that they expected the same things from their female and male managers: mutual respect, honesty, approachability, willingness to listen, sufficient trust to allow them initiative, and consistency. When the researchers probed deeper, however, they found that women have quite different expectations. Women expect their female managers, in comparison to their male managers, to display a higher degree of emotional understanding of and support for them. They also expect their female managers to see them as equals, take a holistic view of them as people, understand the complexities of their lives, and provide them with the flexibility to accommodate those complexities. In other words, women expect female managers to conform to prescriptive gender stereotypes by being “more understanding, more nurturing, more giving, and more forgiving than men.” As one study participant stated: “You expect women to understand you more, and to be wired psychologically more similar, therefore you expect more empathy and compassion.”

The rub is that women managers in gendered workplaces are unlikely to want to be seen by their managers as treating female subordinates less critically than they do male subordinates, or any differently from the way male managers treat their subordinates. Thus, wholly apart from whether female managers actually exhibit strongly agentic behavior, they are likely to fail to meet the stereotypical expectations of female subordinates.

Many women never realise that they hold their women managers to different, often higher standards than their men managers. Instead they view women managers who act like men as cold, selfish and unlikeable – prime targets for incivility.

From It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace by Andrea S Kramer and Alton B Harris , published this month (Nicholas Breazley).

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