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Catalyst Study Exposes How Gender-Based Stereotyping Sabotages Women in the Workplace

Stereotyping Contributes to the Stark Gender Gap in U.S. Business Leadership

Gender-based stereotyping—and not fact-based information—often informs senior executives’ perceptions of men and women leaders and misrepresents the true talents of women leaders, contributing to the startling gender gap in business leadership, according to Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, a study released today by Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization dedicated to advancing women at work. 

The effects of gender-based stereotyping can be devastating, potentially undermining women’s capacity to lead, and pose serious challenges to women’s career advancement, the study finds. Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed reveals that men and women stereotype senior leaders in similar ways and that this stereotyping is not a matter of style; rather, it reflects leaders’ perceptions of men’s and women’s leadership behavior. 

Most alarmingly, men consider women to be less adept at problem-solving, one of the qualities most commonly associated with effective leadership and a hallmark behavior of a CEO. Since men far outnumber women in top management positions, this male-held stereotype dominates current corporate thinking and may contribute to the fact that although women hold more than one-half of all management and professional positions, they make up less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs. 

“This important study underscores that it’s what you don’t see and hear that often counts in the workplace,” said Ilene H. Lang, President of Catalyst. “By shining a spotlight on this often unspoken and insidious barrier to women’s  advancement, it demonstrates empirically how gender-based stereotyping often operates as shorthand for fact and shortchanges women in the workplace.” 

Perception vs. Reality
Prior research indicates that most people are not aware of how stereotyping automatically influences their thinking and, therefore, believe that their perceptions are based on objective observations. Catalyst’s study asked senior-level executives to independently rate the effectiveness of women and then men leaders on ten key leadership behaviors. In analytical reviews of more than 40 previous studies on gender differences in leadership, top researchers found that there are many more similarities than differences between women and men in organizational settings. 

However, Catalyst’s study demonstrates that perceptions don’t reflect reality. Both men and women respondents cast women as better at stereotypically feminine “caretaking skills” such as supporting and rewarding. And, both men and women asserted that men excel at more conventionally masculine “taking charge” skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.  

“It is often these ‘taking charge’ skills—the stereotypically ‘masculine’ behaviors—that are seen as prerequisites for top-level positions,” said Jeanine Prime, Ph.D., author of the study and Director of Research at Catalyst. 

Solving Problems; Taking Charge
While men and women leaders’ responses hewed largely to gender stereotypes, men and women did differ in their judgments of problem-solving ability, arguably the most important leadership metric and the behavior that best embodies the “take charge” stereotype. Women saw women as better problem-solvers. Men saw men as better problem-solvers. In fact, problem-solving was the behavior on which men judged themselves most superior to women. 

For women in business, it’s a real catch-22, the study reveals. Problem-solving, influencing superiors, delegating responsibility, and other “taking charge” skills are key components of what Catalyst’s study terms “interpersonal power.” The study suggests that women, robbed of this interpersonal power, must therefore rely more on “positional power,” their place in the hierarchy of their organizations. Yet, as women comprise only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers, their positional power is markedly limited. 

“Extreme Perceptions” Reinforce Stereotyping
Moreover, Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” reveals that exposure to women leaders doesn’t necessarily lessen stereotyping; often, it reinforces it, creating “extreme perceptions” of women leaders. Though it seems reasonable to assume that the more direct experience individuals have with women leaders, the less apt they will be to rely on stereotyping when making judgments about women’s leadership, the report demonstrates that, in fact, the opposite can occur. 

Psychological research demonstrates that people often automatically remember and believe information that is consistent with their stereotypes and are apt to dismiss observations that contradict these stereotypes. Therefore, individuals with more exposure to women leaders may remember more instances in which they witness women leaders acting in stereotypic ways.  

This is especially true for women leaders who work in traditionally “masculine” occupations where their leadership skills are judged more harshly by their colleagues and where they must fight for credibility with their own subordinates, the very people they are charged to lead.  

Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” inaugurates a series of studies through which Catalyst will examine stereotyping and its effects in both U.S.- and Europe-based companies in addition to important barriers to women’s achievement in the workplace, including limited access to informal networking and a lack of role models. 

In calling attention to this often latent issue of stereotyping, Catalyst aims to address the underlying reasons behind the gender gap in the workplace and recommend actions to enable companies to develop and retain their talent, thereby increasing their competitiveness in the global marketplace. 

A Call to Action
Unfortunately, simply hiring more women executives or instituting more gender diversity programs isn’t enough. In recent years, companies have shown an increased commitment to diversity, inclusion, and the advancement of women in the workplace. Yet, the representation of women in leadership remains stagnant. Despite these companies’ best efforts to implement diversity initiatives and create policies and procedures that encourage women’s representation in leadership, the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 has actually decreased from eight in 2003 to seven today, even though women hold more than half of all management and professional positions. 

Catalyst’s study makes the case that unless organizations take steps to eradicate this bias, women leaders will forever be undermined and misjudged, regardless of their talents or aptitudes. Moreover, the insidious effects of gender-based stereotyping are not limited to women. 

“Ultimately, it’s the companies that suffer. Developing and retaining the best talent is key to remaining competitive in the global business world,” said Lang. “Until we break the spell of stereotyping, companies will continue to sub-optimize women and lose a vital talent pool—one they, frankly, cannot afford to ignore.” 

The study recommends companies take active steps to combat stereotyping by instituting more rigorous and transparent performance evaluation processes; implementing a series of checks and balances to safeguard against stereotyping; educating managers and executives about the often latent influence of stereotyping and about ways to override automatic tendencies to use stereotyping; and showcasing the achievements of women leaders, particularly those in traditionally male-dominated fields. 

Take time to visit and view today’s event webcast. You can also download the full report and view presentation materials from today’s event.

About the survey
The survey analyzed the responses of 296 corporate leaders (128 men and 168 women), of whom 34 percent were CEOs, 41 percent were one reporting level from the CEO, and 10 percent were two reporting levels from the top. In total, approximately 85 percent of those surveyed held positions within two reporting levels of the CEO, giving a solid foundation for understanding the experiences of women leaders in the top ranks. 

About Catalyst
Catalyst is the leading research and advisory organization working with businesses and the professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work. As an independent, nonprofit membership organization, Catalyst uses a solutions-oriented approach that has earned the confidence of business leaders around the world. Catalyst conducts research on all aspects of women’s career advancement and provides strategic and web-based consulting services on a global basis to help companies and firms advance women and build inclusive work environments. In addition, we honor exemplary business initiatives that promote women’s leadership with our annual Catalyst Award. With offices in New York, San  Jose, and Toronto, Catalyst is consistently ranked No. 1 among U.S. nonprofits focused on women’s issues by The American Institute of Philanthropy.