Inès Dauvergne's opinion column
Gender stereotypes associate specific skills or behaviours with women or men based on their gender. We have had the opportunity to measure and qualify them through two research programs*. The results of these two studies are very similar and highlight a gendered perception of skills that will have a certain number of negative impacts on the gender mix in professions and in women’s career evolution.
Women are seen as intuitive, organised, pragmatic, with interpersonal skills and notably listening skills and above all seldom authoritarian. When they are part of the senior management, they supposedly become careerist, competitive and would not be caring any more. As regards men, whether they are senior managers or not, they are perceived as logical, strategic, political, careerist, authoritarian and sparsely caring. These stereotypes are very similar regardless of the age, gender or business sector of the responding managers. This shows that they are internalised by both men and women and that they are built from early childhood, long before their arrival within the company.
3 types of stereotypes
There are different types of stereotypes and these studies’ major innovation was that they measured them more specifically.
The auto-stereotypes are the way you see the group you belong to: what women think of women and what men think of men. The auto-stereotype will thus impact selfconfidence and the ability to project oneself into such or such position or profession. The auto-gender stereotypes are for instance going to push women towards jobs and or sectors that highlight their interpersonal skills and organisation such as support roles or care jobs. Men will direct themselves more easily towards technical jobs and management positions. The somewhat negative perception of women leaders due to the fact that they supposedly are very different from other women (harder, careerist and not caring) will fuel the difficulty of some women to project themselves into key positions. These women leaders do not represent role models to them but “rejecting” roles.
The hetero-stereotypes are the way you see others: what women think of men and vice versa. This will have an impact on the relations between both genders and discrimination. We know for instance that our brain better retains all the information that confirms its stereotypes through a selective attention bias. On strictly equivalent behaviours we thus identify more easily leadership with men and listening skills with women. The hetero-stereotypes will also generate strong social expectations with regards to men and women and will trap them in roles in which they do not necessarily recognize themselves. A very determined woman will be judged as hard and castrating and a sensitive, caring man as weak and lacking leadership.
The meta-stereotypes are projections we make on what others think of us: what women think men say about them and vice versa. We measured that women tend to underestimate the vision men have of them and that men, conversely overestimate the female vision of them. These negative meta-stereotypes partly explain the female self-censorship phenomena. A woman, convinced that her male manager has a poor image of her, might find it difficult to ask for a promotion or a raise, and when her own stereotypes make her doubt her legitimacy to take up a position of responsibility. This explains why we often hear that a woman will wait to have 150% of the skills before pursuing a position when a man applies with 70%.
Limit their impacts?
All the theories in social psychology indicate that it is not possible to make stereotypes disappear. However, we can limit their negative impacts. Several levers have been identified by the research programs on stereotypes. Training and awareness raising on stereotypes is one of the first means. Stereotypes are never as powerful as when they are unconscious. The company’s commitment and communication on non-discrimination topics and diversity are also a powerful lever. Creating an environment that is open to differences can limit the managers’ stereotypes.
Fighting unequal treatment and work dissatisfaction can also reduce stereotypes that have an outflow function. This means that the more the employees feel that they are being discriminated against or are unsatisfied, the more they are going to have negative stereotypes towards the other groups. Furthermore, when a group is seen as strongly discriminated against this fuels the negative stereotypes about it through the rationalisation process bias. Finally, the processes and tools that allow to objectivise the recruitment and career evolution also operate to avoid that our stereotypes and unconscious biases interfere too much with the decisions.
There isn’t a miraculous solution to fight stereotypes but there is a set of actions that has to be coherent and conducted in the long run.
* Research programs conducted with French organisation IMS entreprendre pour la cité in 2012 (1200 surveyed managers within 9 companies in France) and 2017 with the WIF Foundation (2400 corporate group managers in France, Germany and Italy)
Diversity expert and columnist, Inès Dauvergne supports public authorities and companies in relation to gender diversity, preventing discriminations and inclusion. She also is the co-founder of the#MeandYouToo app which is a self-evaluating tool on sexism and gender stereotypes.