Are you reinforcing gender stereotypes in the workplace?

3 minute read
Women networking

As the result of a tendency towards the status quo, most leadership positions are still occupied by men. The stereotypes of typically male attributes have fused into the perception of a standard of good performance, putting women at an inherent disadvantage. 

Conceptual models of what makes good leaders, salespeople, etc shape processes such as recruitment, performance reviews, evaluation and promotion. Even though women may have ‘male’ traits that are a fit with the role, they may still be relegated in hiring and promotion decisions since, as an exception to the general rule, they can be viewed as a riskier bet. 

Therefore, even though there may be an effort to remove bias from a company’s processes, sometimes such bias is embedded in the job description or performance criteria without regard to the role of softer female skills in producing the required results.

Pervasive stereotypical conceptions of leadership have also resulted in what has been called a backlash effect, the negative perception of individuals who do not meet stereotypical expectations. This presents women with the paradox that, to succeed and be viewed as leaders, they must enact male stereotype behaviours associated with leadership. Yet, when violating their own stereotypes they may suffer from social reprimand. 

Additionally, with the integration of more ‘feminine’ characteristics into recruitment parameters, such as interpersonal skills, women who have succeeded in climbing the ranks with ‘masculine’ traits are then discriminated against for promotion, for lack of feminine traits. 

The bottom line is there is still an area for improvement in HR practices to remove bias from selection, promotion, and recruiting processes by recognising that diverse skill sets can achieve successful results.

Another consequence of the deep set of stereotypes in our culture is the reflection of bias into attribution in performance review processes. Managers are accustomed to a profile of what a good salesman looks like, and what a good leader looks like. When reviewing performance, they tend to underrate the results of outliers. For example, with a male candidate who meets stereotypical expectations and has great business results, the manager has no issue in attributing these to the candidate’s work. Yet, when dealing with an outlier, they may be inclined to conclude that the positive results are driven by a good macroeconomic circumstance and are therefore lucky rather than well deserved. This effect is especially persistent in female candidates’ performance assessments.

Stereotypes are present at all levels of the organisation and across genders so there must be a holistic approach in finding how companies can reinforce diversity. On an individual level, they impact behaviour in the worker by self-selecting out or attributing success to outside factors, such as peers and managers. For example, in a case study for a company that had high attrition rates for women in middle and senior management, the leadership style in meetings was ‘combative’, with clashes between department heads. Women who participated to defend their points found themselves labelled as ‘control freaks’, while their male counterparts were considered ‘passionate’.

At a group level, bias is interwoven in performance reviews, job descriptions, and social networking practices. At an organisational level, practices that favour workers who are available 24/7 put at a disadvantage females who typically carry the burden of household work or family duties. 

Statistics have shown that recruitment firms themselves are not immune from criticism, favouring male candidates even in circumstances where the client preferred women for the role; as identified in a study by Fernandez-Mateo and Fernandez (2016), brought a candidate list skewed to an 80% male representation. The recruitment funnel maintained and even favoured females. A recent study led by Cranfield University (2019) illustrates the imbalance between women and men in leadership positions in the UK.

Clearly, it is going to be a long and hard slog to eliminate these ingrained stereotypes, though some progress is being made at least by acknowledging them.

Those of us who are in, or will be in, leadership positions must contribute to this effort and in addition be the ones to make the long-needed change.