June 1, 2010 — Last year, an interview with Elle Group Senior Vice President Carol Smith made waves online when Smith fired off a list of gender stereotypes. She was asked if women made better managers. “Hands down, women are better. There’s no contest,” she said. “In my experience, female bosses tend to be better managers, better advisers, mentors, rational thinkers. Men love to hear themselves talk.”
Critics called Smith’s comments everything from refreshing to sexist. When The New York Times later had six experts consider this question, more than 500 readers left passionate responses.
My take is that it’s a dumb question. Research shows that women and men in executive positions are more similar than different. It is individuals who are different from one another.
One big similarity, however, is that women and men both stereotype—and they stereotype women and men in largely the same ways. Why? Because using shortcuts like these can help us size up a situation quickly, based on what we think we already know. It’s human nature to feel smart and efficient when we apply shortcuts like these to new situations.
But what we’re actually doing when we rely on stereotypes is blinding ourselves to what’s really there—and that’s when we lose out. Applying superficial assumptions based on gender doesn’t just hurt the person who is unfairly labeled, it hurts the person or organization doing the labeling by limiting his or her thinking and potentially access to talent.
Why would anyone assume that a woman wouldn’t relocate to advance her career? Or that she wouldn’t want to join her male colleagues at a baseball game? The same goes for men. Why would you assume that a man wouldn’t care if he missed his child’s soccer game? Or made it home in time for a family dinner?
Given the tough business climate today and the fact that choosing the right people to fill jobs can literally mean the difference between success and failure, we must stop making assumptions about people based on gender alone. The next time you catch yourself stereotyping, challenge yourself to step back. Women are individuals—not a monolithic group. The expression “all women are…” needs to go.