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Stereotypes of men and women
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Stereotypes of men and women

Are stereotypes impacting your career and work decisions?

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23rd Mar 2018
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In this article, we present some of the ideas that prevail about gender bias and women in the workplace. We present you with a question, ask for your answer and then provide the research which supports or refutes the idea.

It’s a fun way of checking how much you believe the myths and stereotypes which prevail. At the end we suggest some ideas if you have had a few 'aha moments' about your career.

We are all biased, it’s the way the brain works but just knowing that won't stop you making decisions based on stereotypes and the implicit associations which attach to them. Take his quiz to check how many of the stereotypes you recognise.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum, all decisions are influenced by the beliefs, values and the expectations we have acquired as we grow up and experience life. These determine our behaviour, what it is OK to do and what it's definitely not OK to do.

And something like 80% of our behaviour, rather than being intentional, rational action is based on System 1 unconscious decisions. Research studies show when we are with people who are important to us, like work colleagues or your boss you are more likely to behave in a way consistent with established stereotypes.

We also judge our own actions based on the stereotypes we have absorbed, and these underlying beliefs have repercussions in the workplace. They impact your career decisions, how you manage your team, who you go to for advice and even how well you get on with colleagues and clients.

Check your answers at the end giving yourself one point for each correct answer. We have then provided a few suggestions for how you can notice and tackle your own unconscious bias.

The questions

Answer Yes or No to the following questions...

  1. Are the differences in the way men and women work a result of their brain development and inherent differences in the structure and functioning of the brain?
  2. Is your overall presentation, how attractive you are, how you dress and how tall you are a major contributor to career success and financial reward?
  3. Is giving a job to the candidate who has the best 'fit', perhaps because they like the same things as you or they studied at the same university, isn’t unconscious bias, particularly if they’re a different gender, ethnicity or sexuality to you?
  4. If you perceive a colleague on a flexible working scheme as lazy or work shy, is it unconscious bias if later they do indeed perform poorly?
  5. If a new mum returns to work, is it unconscious bias to spare her the stress of a project with a lot of travel for her first hectic year of working motherhood?
  6. Does unconscious bias always stem from the way we perceive differences in others and how we behave accordingly?
  7. Are men and women are fundamentally suited to different types of role in the workplace? For example, women are better in caring roles and men in technical roles. This is borne out by studies and most people's personal experience.
  8. Do women lack the fundamental aptitude to be leaders, which helps explain the small numbers of female CEOs and senior female leaders across most organisations globally?
  9. Do women talk more than men and does this explain why they get interrupted, because people get impatient?
  10. Women don’t ask for pay raises and that’s why there is a gender pay gap. It's their own fault or at least they bear some responsibility. Is this true?
  11. Is the widespread media coverage about the gender imbalance in business just hype? My company, and most others, have robust processes for hiring and promotion which ensure they are fair. 
  12. Is gender inequality largely a thing of the past? Most of the current hype is just selling newspapers. Young women in particular have the same chances as young men. 
  13. If my company is a meritocracy, I shouldn't have to worry about gender bias, right?
  14. Are women nicer than men, more thoughtful, better team players and generally more collaborative?
  15. Do people prefer to work for a man, meaning that organisations are just understandably making life easier by having more male managers?

The answers

1. Are the differences in the way men and women work a result of their brain development and inherent differences in the structure and functioning of the brain?​

NO. Janet Hyde, University of Wisconsin-Madison, an authority on gender differences, reviewed 46 studies that had been conducted on psychological gender differences between men and women from 1984 to 2004. (A meta-analysis examines the results from a large number of individual studies and averages their effects to get the closest approximation of the true effect size.)

Hyde’s review covered studies looking at differences in cognitive abilities, communication, personality traits, measures of wellbeing, motor skills, and moral reasoning.

She found that 78% of the studies in her sample revealed little or no difference between men and women; this supports her 'gender similarities hypothesis', which states that men and women are far more similar than they are different. The only large differences she found related to girls being better than boys in spelling and language, and testing higher than boys on the personality variable of agreeableness/tendermindedness.

Males tested higher than females on motor performance, certain measures of sexuality (masturbation, casual attitudes about sex), and aggression. So, there are some gender differences, but most are small to non-existent and for males they don’t really relate to work capability.

2. Is your overall presentation, how attractive you are, how you dress and how tall you are a major contributor to career success and financial reward?

YES. If you want to be successful in your career a major attribute is to be good looking and tall! Only 14.5% of men in America can claim to have this attribute; yet, nearly 60% of Fortune 500 company CEOs do. The Tall Book by Arianne Cohen states that only 14.5% of American men stand over six-foot-tall; yet 60% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are six foot or over.

One study concludes that every inch of additional height relates to a corresponding annual salary gap of £500 in favour of the tall.

Economists have found that the best-looking one third of the population makes 12% more than least attractive individuals. In Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, Daniel Hamermesh claims that this bias can, over a lifetime, amount to an earnings gap of $250,000.

3. Is giving a job to the candidate who has the best 'fit', perhaps because they like the same things as you or they studied at the same university, isn’t unconscious bias, particularly if they’re a different gender, ethnicity or sexuality to you?

NO. ‘Affinity (‘like me’) bias is the factor at play when you or your company hire the graduate from the same college with the same biographical characteristics. ‘Hiring in your own image’ can have a long-lasting effect: in the long-term it can mean that you’re likely to build a stronger relationship with that particular individual, which can ultimately lead to that person receiving more stretch assignments, better support of their career or increased visibility across the organisation.

It does nothing though for diversity of life and work experience, diversity of thought and perspective all of which we know result in the better performance of companies. 

4. If you perceive a colleague on a flexible working scheme as lazy or work shy, is it unconscious bias if later they do indeed perform poorly?

NO. These types of prejudices become self-perpetuating through ‘confirmation bias’, whereby we seek evidence to confirm that our original perception was correct.

If you have an inherent belief that employees on flexible work schemes are less committed than those working traditional hours, you may start to notice only the factors which match your belief: they miss a deadline on one report but every other part of their job they complete on time, they make a mistake on some customer analysis but everything else is 100% accurate.

Hence you 'filter' for the data that confirms that belief. And that can include how you view your own career. "I'm working flexibly so can't expect to be promoted for the next few years" was a statement we heard in our research on Gender in the Workplace.

5. If a new mum returns to work, is it unconscious bias to spare her the stress of a project with a lot of travel for her first hectic year of working motherhood?

NO. This is actually a classic example of ‘benevolence bias’. A new mum might be discounted for attendance at an overseas conference in order to spare her the added stress - a conscious decision underpinned by a plethora of unconscious assumptions about motherhood, that result in decisions which may ultimately harm her career.

In our research, we were given this example time and time again by bewildered mums who were frustrated by the impact this bias was having on their career. And no amount of rational discussion was helping their organisation, or their manager, make different decisions.

6. Does unconscious bias always stem from the way we perceive differences in others and how we behave accordingly?

NO. Unconscious bias isn’t just about differences. ‘Own group' bias can see male executives perceive other males as more trustworthy or hardworking than females.

And young women following the ‘self-serving' bias are twice as likely as young men to worry that pursuing a leadership role will make them seem “bossy” because they have been socialised to be polite and quiet. This is living up to the stereotype. How is this impacting your career? 

7. Are men and women fundamentally suited to different types of role in the workplace? For example, women are better in caring roles and men in technical roles. This is borne out by studies and most people's personal experience.

NO. There is a great deal of evidence to support the impact that environment has on gender differences in society.

For example, a review in the Annual Review of Neuroscience in 2011 of research on gender differences in math test scores shows that the already small effects have declined over time and tend to be greater in countries with less gender equality.

In terms of behaviour, a study by economist Uri Gneezy and colleagues showed that in cultures where women are dominant, they tend to be more competitive than men.

Meta studies on gender differences in leadership aspirations showed that differences are decreasing over time — women are closing the gap in terms of wanting to be leaders — suggesting that the gap is due more to society than to biology.

8. Do women lack the fundamental aptitude to be leaders, which helps explain the small numbers of female CEOs and senior female leaders across most organisations globally?

NO. Numerous studies contradict the idea that women are not biologically predisposed to leadership.One 2014 meta-analysis by Samantha Paustian-Underdahl and colleagues, of 95 studies found that female leaders tend to be rated by others as significantly more effective than male leaders, and this effect is stronger after 1996. (On the flip side, men rated themselves as significantly better leaders than women, particularly before 1982.)

But this data does tell us something about the impact of gender roles (as women tend to rate themselves as less effective leaders) and societal changes (since the effects are diminishing over time).

9. Do women talk more than men and does this explain why they get interrupted, because people get impatient?

NO. Both are true but not in the way the myth says. On the amount of talking women do verses men the evidence shows that women hold back in discussions, so the stereotype is false, at least in business. You might think they become more forthright with seniority, when perhaps they're no longer deferring to men. But no...

At the Yale School of Management, Victoria Brescoll has examined the idea that the more senior a woman is, the more she makes a conscious effort to rein back her verbal contribution – the reverse of how most men handle power. In her research Brescoll found that, unsurprisingly those men imagining themselves as senior said they would talk more than juniors, but women imagining they were senior said they would talk the same amount as the more junior women.

Asked why, the women said they didn’t want to be disliked, or to be seen as out of line.

And the women were right to worry about being disliked. In Brescoll’s follow-up experiment, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time.

When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.

Interruptions is a whole other story but there's no evidence it's due to talking more, or less.

10. Women don’t ask for pay raises and that’s why there is a gender pay gap. It's their own fault or at least they bear some responsibility. Is this true?

NO. There is evidence women negotiate in a different way to men, negotiating social acceptance as well as reward. But there is new data that suggests the belief that women don’t ask for pay increases is wrong.

At least in Australia. In research carried out in 2017 by Cass Business School in London, the University of Warwick, and the University of Wisconsin, analysis of data from 4600 workers based in Australia revealed women asked for pay rises as often as men did, but they were 25% less likely to get it. 

The report comes to the stark conclusion that “women do ask but they do not get.” One of the researchers, Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics and behavioural science at Warwick University, says: “We were expecting to find evidence for this old theory that women are less pushy than men. But in asking for pay raises the women and the men were equal."

That can only mean one thing, in Oswald’s view. In the workplace, if women are asking for more money at the same rate as men but not getting it, he concludes “there is discrimination." When the researchers of the study broke down the data by age, they found that younger women successfully negotiated raises as often as young men did.

In particular, women under the age of 40 managed to negotiate for higher pay which might mean the gender pay gap becomes a thing of the past as these savvy negotiators progress their careers.

But rather than wait for these young women to reach the top the 2017 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey/Leanin.org suggests change needs to happen at the company level. Many women are already "leaning in" the study says.

So, what needs changing is the overall context of pay decisions for women. 

11. Is the widespread media coverage about the gender imbalance in business just hype? My company, and most others, have robust processes for hiring and promotion which ensure they are fair. 

YES AND NO. There is a lot of media coverage most of which blames women for the lack of progress in business! According to the 2017 Women in the Workplace study women and men see the state of gender balance in organisations, and the success of gender diversity efforts, differently.

Men are more likely to think the workplace is equitable; women see a workplace that is less fair and offers less support. Men think their companies are doing a pretty good job supporting diversity; nearly 50% of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders are women.

Women see more room for improvement - only 49% feel their company is doing what it takes to ensure gender equality verses 63% of men. And 39% of women feel their promotion and opportunities have been impacted by unequal treatment. Our own survey on Gender in the Workplace found similar data. 

12. Is gender inequality largely a thing of the past? Most of the current hype is just selling newspapers. Young women in particular have the same chances as young men. 

NO. Many women want to believe this. In our own study, carried out in 2017 on Gender in the Workplace, 70% of women said they had experienced no unequal treatment. But the 2017 McKinsey /Leanin.Org study of Women in the Workplace found women experience a workplace skewed in favour of men.

On average, women are promoted at a lower rate than men. The biggest gender gap is at the first step up to manager: entry-level women are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This has a dramatic effect on the pipeline as a whole.

The study estimates if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the senior vice president and C-suite levels would more than double. And the disparity in promotions is not for lack of ambition. Women are just as interested in being promoted as men and they ask for promotions at comparable rates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are less optimistic about their prospects. The women who aspire to be a top executive are significantly less likely to think they’ll become one than men with the same aspiration.

13. If my company is a meritocracy, I shouldn't have to worry about gender bias, right?

NO. Notice a pattern here! If your company prides itself on being a meritocracy you should be worried. Research by Emilio Castilla, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stephen Benard, Indiana University, shows advocating for meritocracy - rather than explicitly pursuing diversity - doesn’t help companies overcome bias.

Their research found companies that highlight “meritocracy” may actually cause greater bias against women: in addition, experimental studies show that when an organisation is referred to as a meritocracy, individuals in managerial positions favour male employees over equally-qualified female employees and give them larger rewards.

The authors suggest that calling the organisation a meritocracy may create 'moral credentialing,' a term used to describe when a track record of egalitarian behaviour in some circumstances makes them feel justified in making non-egalitarian decisions in others.

The pride of greater self-perceived objectivity means managers fail to check their unconscious bias or even worse give themselves license to discriminate against women because of other 'good' policies they have followed.

14. Are women nicer than men, more thoughtful, better team players and generally more collaborative?

YES AND NO. Women are wonderful, or are they? You may be surprised to learn that research suggests that we consistently prefer women over men and mothers over fathers implicitly. This is known, first used by Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic in 1994, as the WAW (“women-are-wonderful”) effect.

By this they meant women are perceived positively on the whole as they are stereotyped as supportive, nice and gentle.

This effect, however, disappears, and even reverses, the moment women step in to the business world or otherwise challenge stereotypical expectations. For example, people implicitly and explicitly prefer male to female leaders and non-feminist women to feminists.

And research by Stefanie Johnson an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business found that female students implicitly prefer housewives over businesswomen.

The implicit pro-female preference also reverses in men when they expect to interact with a superior woman as opposed to an equal or subordinate one.

15. Do people prefer to work for a man, meaning that organisations are just understandably making life easier by having more male managers?

NO. Things are changing. For the first time since 1953, people (Americans at least) no longer prefer a male boss over a female boss, according to 2017 Gallup poll findings.

Over the last 64 years, Gallup has asked Americans, "If you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?"

In the most recent survey conducted at the beginning of November 2017, 55% of Americans say the gender of their boss makes no difference to them. In 1953, 66% of Americans preferred a male boss, compared to 23% today.

What did you discover? 

Let us say something about why most of the answers are NO. That’s because we intentionally stated the questions to match the prevailing stereotype and the myths which go with them. We did this to help you identify your own beliefs which match the stereotype and which may not be serving you well in how you manage your career. 

If this quiz has thrown up some surprises for you, you’re not alone. Follow it up by becoming even more aware of unconscious bias and how they may be impacting your career. 

Stay mindful of your communication and how unconscious bias can creep into the job descriptions you write as a hiring manager, how you sift through CVs, and how you speak to and about others whose backgrounds are different to your own.

And most of all slow down your decision-making about your own career, reflect on the assumptions you are making and the stereotypical behaviour you may be using. 

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