Stereotyping is a social adaptation which evolved to help individuals classify stimuli, and to make judgements about new, untested stimuli. After all, once a crocodile ate your family, it was conducive to your survival to assume that all crocodiles were probably dangerous. However, social interactions and the human sense of self is so much more nuanced today that stereotyping is no longer a valid social tool. People make assumptions about others based on just about any aspect of their person, and this has very real repercussions for diversity and interactions in the workplace, though here I am focusing on preconceived notions of women.
Women often face a paradoxical set of rules for their personality and productivity, especially at work. Sometimes we are perceived as being too talkative and willing to talk over others, yet a recent study showed that men do most of the talking in work meetings, and are much more likely to interrupt a woman and than man. Women are perceived by men to be worse at problem solving, as being unreliable if they are working mothers, and as being worse team leaders or executives. This is contrary to other studies which show women to be more effective leaders. In that study, women were more likely to take charge, undergo professional development, be honest, and were better at communicative and collaborative skills. Many women who were surveyed attributed their success to having to work much harder than their male counterparts in order to prove their competence.
Women are encouraged to be more feminine from many angles, such as societal norms, or product marketing and advertising, often with the perception that you will be more attractive and better liked if you exhibit predominantly feminine qualities (warmth, nurturing, patience). However, the perception of working women used to be (in 1984) that they were more masculine, and prior to that working women were seen as selfish, unfeminine, and cold. While in 2014, working women were categorized as equally feminine and masculine, being more “masculine” (self-confident, self-promoting) is shown to increase your chance of promotion. Women are also often expected to do workplace “chores” or to be altruistic (staying late, helping other employees, etc. at no personal gain) in ways that men are not.
Another problem is the perception of working women and their relation to their family, which has improved in the last century but still lags behind the times. It’s still assumed that women will at some point temporarily or permanently leave work to raise a family, and working mothers are commonly perceived to be unreliable in terms of performance and time spent at work. There can still be negative attitudes towards women who work instead of staying home to raise children, even though countless studies across the globe have shown that working mothers (who want to be working) have a more positive attitude, act as role models, and reduce gender inequality in future generations (data from here and summarized here).
This also ties into theories about whether or not a woman should earn more that her man (arguments which ignore same-sex couple earning dynamics). However, this leads to the idea that women don’t work to financially support their families, but to feed an ambition, yet why can’t both be true? Men responded that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to them than women, and were less likely to respond that a job was the best way for a woman to be independent. Thus, women’s careers are incorrectly perceived as superfluous to supporting a family and leads to the idea that we don’t need to make as much as a man, who may be supporting his family.
I can personally attest to this. For several years, I was financially supporting my ex-husband during his arduous job search following the 2008 recession. It didn’t bother me, as I was applying to graduate school and preparing for the financial tables to turn once I transitioned to a student stipend. However, our financial roles came as a surprise to many people, in that the thought hadn’t occurred to them that I was the prevailing breadwinner. This was again reflected in people’s perceptions about what we would do after I graduated. When I announced my interest in finding a post-doctoral position on the opposite US coast or internationally, people were surprised that I would ask my man to give up his job, start over in a new place, and move away from his family. However, I would have been expected to do the same if our career roles had been reversed.
Luckily, attitudes about female bosses are changing, even if our paychecks aren’t. Today fewer men responded that they would prefer a male boss to a female boss, and more had no preference, than they did 50 years ago. Only 23% of Americans polled preferred a woman, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss. Gender preference was also linked to the gender of your current boss, so it likely that people are as unsure of change in hierarchy as they are of specific genders in charge. Surprisingly, women were 13% more likely to want a male boss, which may be a reaction to fierce competition to become the “token woman” at a company or working group, as women or other minorities who advocate hiring another woman or minority are penalized. There is also the perception among women that a female boss less likely to promote you over herself, as she doesn’t want competition, known as Queen Bee Syndrome. This too, has been refuted, as women are shown to be more likely to mentor and develop female employees lower down on the ladder (discussed here). Interestingly, companies with higher numbers of women in leadership roles consistently do better financially than companies with low number of women in leadership roles.
So how do we act more confidently without being arrogant or dominating, prove that we are great at math and science without being narcissistic, or have a family but not make a big deal of it? The best way to change public misconceptions is to prove them wrong. My advice, for women, for everyone: just be yourself. Be your best self. Be friendly and open, but judiciously say “no” to demands on your time. Remember who you are, where you want to go, and be comfortable in your skin. Feel free to be feminine, masculine, or whatever (just remember to be professional). As you work your way through your career, you should remember to be humble; after all, there is always someone out there that knows more than you do, but you also need to remember that you are intelligent, hard working, and you deserve to be where you are.