Watch Your Step! Gender Stereotypes at Work

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Posted by Cara Scharf on June 16, 2011
Watch Your Step! Gender Stereotypes at Work

Stereotypes are not, by their nature, negative. But since they are essentially gross oversimplications, and hence distortions, of a group of people, they carry a tremendous amount of negative cultural baggage. That's why discussing them can be so controversial—and fun.

There's no disputing that an abundance of stereotypes exist about women in the workplace. Whether true, false, negative, or positive, we think the pitfalls these stereotypes suggest can provide some useful lessons for striding through the corridors of corporate America.

Though women have outnumbered men in college enrollment for the past 30 years, men are still more prevalent in the workforce, get paid more, and occupy more executive roles. It begs the question: What's going on here?

In a  2004 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to women's professional advancement, 46 percent of women chose gender-based stereotyping as a top barrier to advancement, compared to only 5 percent of men. Clearly, women that have been out there in the trenches see these stereotypes as a very real impediment-and something younger women will face when they enter the workforce. So we assembled a panel of female executives, career experts, and yes, even a man, to deconstruct six stereotypes that challenge women in the office.

The Panel:
.    Gail Evans, former executive VP at CNN and author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman
.    Christopher Flett, author of What Men Don't Tell Women About Business
.    Maggie Mistal, career coach and host of the weekly XM Satellite Radio show "Making a Living with Maggie"
.    Vicki Donlan, consultant and author of Her Turn: Why it's Time for Women to Lead in America
.    Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, an organization that promotes women in business
.    Barbara Adachi, chief talent officer of Human Capital Consulting at Deloitte and national managing principal of their Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women (WIN)

Women are less aggressive

Whether it's a raise, a promotion, or more responsibility, the general consensus among our panel is that women don't actively pursue what they deserve, mostly because women feel their work speaks for them. "Women think stating we deserve something is bragging. Instead we hope that the harder we work, the more we'll get," says Evans. Women who do have the guts to ask often don't aim high enough. "Women worry about making their employer feel uncomfortable," says Flett. "I had a man and woman at their first year review around the same time. Both were making $50,000. The guy came in, outlined all he had done to add value to my company, and asked for $80,000. I gave him $68,000. The woman only asked for $55,000. I think she felt bad about asking for more, but I would have given her $68,000, too."

Speak Up!
"Be your own PR person," says Evans. "Make sure people understand how valuable you are." Women should voice accomplishments to managers and coworkers in real time, not just during a review or negotiation. When asking for something, our panel suggests not being overly concerned that an employer might react negatively. Instead, women should err on the high end of what they deserve. If a woman downplays her value, her employer will, too.

Women are catty with each other
The panel was all over the board on this one. Flett, the only male, felt very strongly that it was true. "The greatest enemy to women in business is women in business," he says. "That's because they still view business as a man's game. They think there's only one spot for a woman at the top." Sangster, however, feels this stereotype is unsupported. "I just haven't seen this. The women that I work with are very interested in helping both women and men succeed." Mistal says this is less about business than it is about looks and age gaps. "I once had an older boss who I felt kept me back, but I can't ascribe that to gender. It's more about being threatened by a younger person," she says. "I think looks come into play as well, especially in industries like fashion or media."

Stand Together

Our panel didn't agree on the reasons behind the cattiness stereotype, but they did agree that less competition and more cooperation among women could only help. "Instead of just one, there should be room for five or six women at the top," says Sangster. "To break through and make that happen, we have to promote each other."

Women can't take criticism
Evans credits this stereotype to women feeling less confident in the workplace than men. "When a guy is reviewed, he is more likely to hear positives. That's because he knows he belongs in the workplace, and he looks for affirmation," she says. "A woman gets reviewed and she will harp on her deficiencies because she isn't as comfortable in the working world." Adachi expresses a similar sentiment. "Women tend to be very self-critical. They think everything needs to be perfect because they have to prove themselves at work." On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mistal thinks this stereotype is a misconception. "Women may question criticism more, which is viewed as sensitivity," she says. "But we really just want to understand it better. Women want justification for a bad review, which is a good thing, as long as once you get the explanation you move on."

Live and Learn
Realize it's not personal; it's work. It comes down to understanding the criticism and knowing how to learn from it. Women should be sure to ask for concrete examples of what they're doing wrong, so they can see clearly how it relates to their work-and what needs to be done to improve. The more women see that there's room to make mistakes and improve, the less they'll feel threatened by criticism.

Women are too emotional

It's okay for a woman to open the floodgates at a romantic movie, but a sudden outpouring of emotion at the office may look unprofessional. While several on our panel agree that women express their emotions more openly, they feel being emotional is not necessarily a bad thing. "Women are passionate about what they do, and that makes it hard for them to compartmentalize work and personal issues," says Sangster. "Being emotional is important. In this recession we could have used more people who were more emotionally connected to their decisions." On the other hand, men certainly have emotional outbursts at work, too. "Men get angry and yell. To them, anger is just a more acceptable emotion than sadness," says Mistal.

Take a Deep Breath

It's not necessary to extinguish all emotion, but women and men should keep it in check and channel it in productive ways. If you're sad or angry, find the root of the emotion and deal with it appropriately. When it comes to crying, though, our panel says it's a no-no. Women can avoid public tears by stepping out until the emotion is under control.

Women are more empathetic

Our experts agree that this one works in women's favor. Empathy is the ability to relate to others, a trait Evans attributes to traditional female roles. "We are mothers. We are more relationship oriented, more interested in the minutia of others' lives." According to Donlan, sensitivity to others is a boon for managers. "When you lead with empathy, your workers are more likely to support you. Women are more likely to ask questions and delve deeper into feelings and opinions, rather than leading with the idea that 'what I say you should follow.'" Empathy can also help women better understand clientele, says Flett. "A man will just sell a widget. A woman asks, 'Why would someone want this widget? What will the widget do to this person's life?'"

Have a Heart

Women should work their empathy card, but make sure that it's being used for professional reasons, such as building coworker relationships, collaborating in teams, and decoding audiences. If a woman sets up shop as the office psychologist-becoming the go-to person for personal troubles-she's crossed the line.

Women underplay their professional accomplishments
"When I first became a partner at Deloitte," says Adachi, "my husband and I would go to parties and people would ask what I do. I would just say I work at Deloitte. My husband asked why I didn't tell people I was a partner. I didn't want to brag." Evans feels women who have the tendency to play down their achievements are echoing behaviors learned as children. "Girls are taught modesty, that if you brag no one will like you," says Evans. "We're all about creating and maintaining relationships, rather than building hierarchies." Our experts say that women are also less inclined to talk about professional accomplishments outside of work because women feel their jobs don't define them. Family, friends, and home life, however, do.

Make An Example of Yourself
"I kept telling myself I am not bragging, I'm just stating facts," says Adachi. Rather than worry about bragging, women should think of sharing their accomplishments as a way to boost other women. If young women are exposed to strong, accomplished females, it can demonstrate how attainable professional success really is.


This article is from the winter issue of Jungle Campus.

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