The power and pitfall of gender stereotypes

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Emily Gardner, Contributing Writer

 

 

In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gave a powerful TED Talk discussing gender inequality in the workplace. This is a topic that has since attracted much debate and controversy in social media as well as academic circles among men and women globally. One difference Sandberg called attention to was the disparity between the number of women and men in high power positions: “Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the people in Parliament in the world, one percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top (C-level job, board seats) tops off at 15 or 16 percent.”

While this disparity still exists today, the number of women in high power positions in the world is steadily increasing, and I predict that it will continue to do so. However, the focus shouldn’t be so much on the number of female leaders as the cause of the gender gap. One factor that largely contributes to the gender gap seen in corporate America is gender stereotyping at the level of administration.

Past psychological research has consistently found that executive-level and managerial positions are considered to be male in sex-type, and a good manager or executive is seen as possessing stereotypically masculine characteristics such as assertiveness, independence, competence and achievement orientation. On the other hand, females are often seen as less assertive than men, more communal, gentle, empathetic and concerned with others, and these qualities are not seen as characteristics of a good leader in the corporate world.

I think it’s fair to say that men and women generally differ. There’s a reason gender stereotypes emerged in the first place. In general, men tend to be more assertive and achievement-oriented. In general, women tend to be more communal and empathetic. Regardless, we all know people who don’t fit these molds, people who are exceptions to the rule. I know plenty of women who are assertive, independent and achievement-oriented and plenty of men who are relational and unassertive. I also know plenty of people who display characteristics of both male and female stereotypes.

So what happens when corporations only hire the assertive, independent candidates while the gentle and relational ones are seen as weak? Odds are, most of the candidates hired will be men. What the executive level of the corporate sector (or any organization for that matter) misses out on by excluding the types of people who possess more stereotypically female characteristics are starkly new perspectives on the organization, its efficiency and the direction of their corporation. They also significantly limit themselves in regard to what kind of employees they attract.

Many women turn away from leadership positions because they don’t feel that they can compete in a male-dominated system since it is expected that leaders fit the male sex-type mold. In addition to this, it is generally frowned upon for a woman to start a family at the beginning of her career. This leaves the women who want to be mothers and also progress their careers with few options other than to back off.

Sabrina Parsons, the CEO of Palo Alto Software, is a personal hero of mine. She allows all of her employees the flexibility of having a family while advancing in their careers. Parsons allows her employees to bring their children to the office when they’re sick or don’t have school that day. She doesn’t make her employees sacrifice their personal lives in order to have good jobs.

While Sandberg advocates for women to “lean in” and step up to the challenge that corporate America presents them with, sometimes at the expense of their personal lives, Parsons argues for accommodation. She has said, “Let’s get beyond acting like men in order to get ahead, and emphasize how our differences make us incredible assets.”

Corporate America needs to make room for more women to compete for high-level positions and abandon the mentality that a woman must chose a career or a family. Otherwise, highly capable and driven women will continue to be prevented from climbing the corporate ladder and corporations will continue to pass up phenomenal leaders and diversified perspectives within their workplace.

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