Stereotype threats are real. They affects performance and morale. Luckily, research shows you can drastically reduce their impact with pretty simple interventions. Read on!
Defined as “a situational predicament in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their group,” stereotype threats have a harmful effect on women in the workplace.
Red Shoe Movement’s Principle #7 Addresses Stereotype Threat
Labels refer to any word or expression we use (even tongue-in-cheek) that has an overt or subtle derogatory undertone: Bitch, bossy, competitive, etc. These labels reflect deep-held beliefs we contribute to perpetuate every time we use them. So when women don’t conform to the social norm expected of them and are interested in power, or when they are decisive and have a strong will to carry out their vision, we collectively bring them down a notch or two by calling them names.
In other words, certain expressions can have very detrimental —even if unintended— consequences. Identifying this effect goes a long way to changing our choice of words.
With the help of a nuanced infographic created by Catalyst, we review how to flip five common labels used on women to reduce stereotype threat.
1She’s Too Abrasive or She’s Too Aggressive
This is a case of damn if you do, damn if you don’t, if there ever was one. Women are told that they need to be assertive and express themselves and what they want clearly. Yet, when they do, they are penalized for not being warm and fuzzy. Finding the sweet spot can be quite hard.
Catalyst: Rather than focusing on their style you should focus on their work performance.
In addition: Some research shows that when it comes to feedback, women get more negative personality criticism than men. Things like: “You can come across as aggressive sometimes.” So may I also suggest that you think twice before providing this kind of feedback? Would you say the same thing to Tom that you’re about to say to Lisa? That’s an easy way to assess if you’re about to fall into a stereotype threat.
2She’s So Helpful
One of the ways in which organizations can facilitate the promotion of women to positions of more responsibility is by creating opportunities for exposure. Those seldom lie in a support position. When women are viewed as part of the “back office” or the support team, they are less likely to be perceived as leadership material. So although it’s good to appreciate the support of your team members when warranted, if that’s all you do for them, they won’t go as far in their careers as they could.
Catalyst: When you speak of the women in your team, be specific about their contributions.
In addition: Find real opportunities for every woman on your team to develop and exercise leadership skills regardless of their position. Admins and support staff can be put in charge of leading projects that give them the exposure they deserve. You might be surprised at how people rise to the occasion once you raise your expectations.
3She Gets Overly Emotional
I don’t need to tell you that women tend to be more in touch with their emotions than their male counterparts. Or that often, when we are angry we cry. And although this may be a biological response, both tears and displays of anger in the workplace tend to be frowned upon. When it’s women who are doing either, obviously. The social norm that affects men expects them to exhibit anger, assertiveness, and aggression as part of the attributes of male leadership. Not so much for women.
Catalyst: Rather than calling her “emotional” take the time to describe to women the consequences of their behavior.
In addition: Help them learn to explain the reason for their tears while they are shedding them, so their audience is aware they are not a sign of weakness, rather a sign of anger, frustration, etc. Help your male employees identify their different responses to anger when expressed by each gender so they understand women can get angry yet be effective leaders.
4She Lacks Leadership Gravitas or She Lacks Executive Presence
This is frequently code for “she doesn’t look like the current leadership,” which tends to be white, and male. This expression particularly affects women of color because they face a double whammy. Gender and race or ethnicity. It’s trully quite a stereotype threat when you wish to promote more women to the top.
So if you are truly committed to diversity and inclusion at the top of your organization, the current leadership will have to look beyond the traditional definition of executive presence.
Catalyst: Rather than just crossing a woman off explain exactly what you mean.
In addition: If you continue using the old definition of the attributes, abilities, experience you look for in a leader, you’ll probably continue to recruit the same type of person. Get rid of unstructured interviews where “cultural fit” can become an unspoken way to hire people who look like you or your current leadership team. Instead, create a list of specific requirements for the position and a list of questions that you ask all interviewees. Assign points to each answer and have someone else tally all the answers from all interviewees to get you the finalist. There are many concrete, simple interventions you can implement to make sure you hire the best person for the job rather than someone who fits some old stereotype.
5She’s Too Judgmental
Often, when women give critical feedback others consider her incompetent. This stereotype threat undermines women’s leadership chances.
Catalyst: Rather than making it about her leadership style, focus on whether she’s demonstrating good judgment.
In addition: Everyone should understand that human beings are all judgmental. We can’t see the world other than through our individual lens. That lens places a layer of judgment on everything as we can only perceive people, circumstances and situations through our own experiences, emotions, knowledge, culture, social context and so on. So, rather than impose another stereotype threat, which might stop women’s impetus to grow, why not acknowledge that we are all equally judgmental.
As I said in a recent post about an entirely different subject, words matter. They build our reality. Choosing the right ones will guarantee we create a more promising future for everyone.