How Stereotypes Impact Women (And Men) at Work (Blog Post)November 29, 2017
When we think about workplace gender issues, we usually think about issues like sexual harassment, the pay gap, and the glass ceiling. But the effects of bias spread into many aspects of everyday work, often in ways that aren’t always easy to recognize or identify. And these more subtle barriers can be just as harmful as the more overt behaviors.
The idea that women are not well-suited for the workplace causes two big problems.
It leads us to stereotype women, while also painting traditionally female-gendered traits such as empathy and emotional awareness in a negative light. Traits traditionally associated with male gender roles, such as dominance, assertiveness, and confidence, are also those that are considered essential for leadership positions. Because of this, women are often forced to conform to prevailing leadership styles, limiting their ability to employ traits like humility that increase workplace innovation and compel employees to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Prevailing leadership traits are typically presented as a foil to more “feminine” traits, which also happen to be associated with subordinate positions. Men who display qualities such as empathy then might be called “soft” or “whipped,” which confers negativity to behaviors deemed feminine, and attributes femininity to behaviors deemed negative, resulting in a verbal weapon that mocks or punishes men while demeaning women. Men who feel policed in this way tend to reject these “feminine” behaviors in favor of more aggressive ones, which can be harmful to both themselves and others.
Stereotyping leads women to feel pressure to demonstrate that they are not like “other women.” Women are placed in a uniquely challenging position—they are called upon to be assertive, confident, and dominant, without being seen as bossy, snobby, or naggy. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to be judged or singled out for not having excellent social skills or being emotionally available for others—traits that are expected of women.
How Men Can Flip the Script
Men can help by assessing their own behaviors to identify how they can better work with women. Men have the power to influence their peers and disrupt the status quo when it comes to sexism in the workplace. It’s not always easy to stand up to instances of injustice, but everyone is better off for it. Take a look at these behaviors and consider whether they’re common at your job:
Locker Room Talk: These are conversations that you feel fine having with members of your gendered group, but wouldn’t feel comfortable having in front of the subject due to their sexualized nature. If these conversations are common in your workplace, it’s important to not just exclude yourself, but to also actively combat them. When you hear locker room talk, interject with your own comments—that locker room talk is objectifying and inappropriate.
The now-famous Always #LikeAGirl ad demonstrates the disconnect that has to happen when men participate in these conversations or tolerate women being talked about this way. When a little boy is asked about whether his cartoonish imitation of running “like a girl” is an insult to his sister, he responds, “No! I mean, yeah, I insulted girls, but not my sister.” And yet what would she think if she saw his uncoordinated take on her on gender? Men might think they’re able to separate their locker room talk from dealing professionally with their women colleagues, but it’s impossible to imagine how one couldn’t influence the other.
Tokenism: Tokenism involves performative policies that ostensibly promote diversity or equality (placing women or diverse groups in leadership positions), but do not truly have a positive impact on the workplace. Tokenism isn’t progressive, and it especially causes harm to tokenized individuals, causing extra pressure to succeed due to being perceived as representative of a group and often leaving them in an alienating work environment.
To avoid tokenism, make sure the case for inclusion is clear in your organization and provide real support for women and diverse leaders. Because women are judged more harshly when they fail, make sure women leaders have male sponsors who can advocate for them behind closed doors.
Stereotypes: Stereotypes are some of the hardest aspects of sexism to shake, but it’s important for us to be aware of how we stereotype others, and to be aware of the biases we have so that we can actively work against them. We’re all prone to this type of thinking, so practice questioning the preconceived ideas you have about men and women and their respective gender roles.
It may be easiest to start with yourself. Think about these questions: what do you feel like society expects of you as a man? Have you been told not to cry? Have you been told not to ask for help? Have you felt pressured into doing or liking things that are considered “manly,” like sports, cars, or power tools, when you’re not really interested in them at all? Have you ever ordered a salad at a restaurant, only to have someone poke fun at you for not ordering the steak? Stereotypes like these limit you as a person, and the same goes for women.
Having an awareness and recognition of gender stereotypes in the workplace is a great place to start, but after you’ve had time to come to terms with the implications of institutionalized sexism, it’s important to act. Action is what makes someone a true ally. Empowerment with knowledge is what makes action possible. Men can influence the path to a brighter future for everyone, and it starts with the individual.
Victoria Roseberry is a writer and recent graduate who lives in the northwestern U.S. and is passionate about gender equity. She enjoys involving herself with the intersectional feminism movement and exploring ways to help both men and women advance towards an equitable future for all.