How gender stereotypes compromise performance and wellbeing

| March 17, 2017

As a leader, what can you do to minimise the impact of gender stereotypes on yourself and those around you? Anna Lee explains.

Soon after I was conceived in the back of a combi-van in the English spring of 1973, my parents resolved to raise me – and any subsequent offspring – free of the restrictive, gender-based expectations that had permeated so much of their own childhoods. Their aim: to bring up children whose lives and careers would be defined not by social norms, but by their own abilities, strengths and values.

Fast forward several decades, and my brother Diarmid and I now run a consultancy together, he specialised in team, and organisational culture and I in diversity and inclusion. We both share the care of our respective children with our spouses, and all four of us work part-time. No surprises there; having experienced the benefits of growing up in a family in which our parents shared income earning and parental responsibilities, we wanted to confer the same advantages on our own children.

What is perhaps more of a surprise is that since our childhood, gender stereotypes have shifted far less than our pioneering parents might have hoped. And the cost is not only in our homes; whether we are aware of it or not, ideas about what men and women should do and be (prescriptive stereotypes) and what they do and are (descriptive stereotypes) limit both individual and organisational performance, and can have a significant impact on workplace wellbeing.

Exactly how stereotypes impact workplace performance and wellbeing is complex. For a leader who values fairness and equality, research into the influence of gender on evaluations of employee performance and behaviour is a good place to start.

For example, when assessing a fictional candidate for a lab manager position, both male and female science professors rated ‘John’ as more ‘hireable’, competent, and worthy of mentoring than Jennifer. Despite the fact that the information provided on both candidates – aside from their name – was identical. Gender stereotypes, then, reduce the capacity for even scientists to make rational assessments based on evidence. And it’s not difficult to imagine how the experiences of real-life Jennifers diminish their workplace engagement and well-being.

Equally compelling is research into how masculine stereotypes impact perceptions of men who seek to access family leave or part-time arrangements. In our work, we frequently meet men who would welcome the opportunity to access part-time or flexible work arrangements, but have been made all too aware of the cost of doing so. As one commented to me recently ‘The only man I know who works part-time has to put up with an endless stream of digs. It’s clear that he’s considered a lightweight – I doubt he’ll ever be a serious contender for a more senior role.’

Minimising the impact of gender stereotypes

So, as a leader, what can you do to minimise the impact of gender stereotypes on yourself and those around you?

  1. Understand how and why our brain depends on stereotypes – and that a conscious desire to avoid stereotyping is no defense against our unconscious biases. Our brains are constantly taking in information about how particular skills, qualities, attributes and even objects are related – or not – to particular categories of people. In our society, the information we receive about the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are very different (think entertainment, advertisements, media and appearance).
  2. Think about the messages you have received about what you should and shouldn’t do, what you are or are not, based on your gender. Consider how those messages might have differed had you been a different gender. Listen to others’ stories of how stereotypes have impacted their lives and careers. Encourage others to listen well, too.
  3. Identify the ‘red flag’ situations, conversations, relationships and processes in which gender stereotypes are likely to have a significantly detrimental impact. These include any scenarios in which potential, performance or personality are evaluated, either informally or formally, from recruitment and selection to appraisals and task allocation.
  4. Establish ‘safeguards’ that will mitigate bias in ‘red flag’ situations. These include seeking out information that contradicts your existing perceptions, asking yourself and others if assessments of an individual’s potential or performance would differ if s/he was a different gender, or if you were a different gender, and basing any evaluation on specific, observable behaviours, not general impressions.

Gender stereotyping affects everyone. But as a leader, you can take action so that, just as my parents wished for their children, and my brother and I wish for ours, those around you can achieve the full potential of their abilities, strengths, and values.