03/03/2021 Tash Wright

The role of gender stereotypes in the workplace.

Gender beliefs are incredibly powerful in shaping our cultures and behaviours. They quietly dictate how we move through the world and how the world responds to us. And the problem with gender bias is that it’s not carried out single-handedly by misogynists and anti-feminists.It’s something we all unconsciously grapple with. Whether it’s being too quick to assume a CEO would be a man or expecting a woman to pick up the slack on emotional labour, we are all both perpetrators and victims of gender stereotyping. This International Women’s Day, I choose to challenge the gender biases that are at play in the workplace, and how they manifest themselves in not only what is expected of women, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what we expect of ourselves.

When we talk about stereotyping women, a lot of the same language comes to mind. Women are nurturing, sensitive, intelligent, communicative, sweet, nice. On the other side of the coin, they’re bitchy, outspoken, bossy, emotional and controlling. It’s the dichotomy of femininity that leaves women walking a very difficult tightrope, dutifully censoring their behaviour so as not to topple over onto one side. This has serious implications for women in leadership roles who are still trying to navigate a world where the cultural stereotype of a leader is male. When we talk about stereotypical leadership traits, they tend to fall into the masculine category – confident, decisive, authoritative, ambitious. This means female leaders have the added challenge of dealing with inconsistent stereotypes that are in tension with one another. They’re supposed to be strong and commanding, able to hold their ground and speak their mind while simultaneously coming off as kind and gentle, communal and supportive. It’s a very fine line and an impossible standard that men are not held to in the same way. Studies have shown that women who display these stereotypically male leadership qualities are less well-liked than men who exhibit the exact same traits. Yet women who take a more empathetic approach to leadership face questioning around their competence and ability to make hard decisions. It’s a double bind for women and one where the only solution hinges on a total redefinition of what it means to be a modern leader.

These instances of gender stereotyping don’t just influence women’s career trajectories. They also trickle down into the day-to-day running of a company. Emotional labour is defined as the unpaid and often unnoticed work that goes into keeping everything around you ticking along nicely. In a working environment, that may include influencing office harmony, volunteering for menial tasks, organising office events, remembering a colleague’s birthday and generally taking on undervalued emotional and mental obligations and commitments. This is work that is essential to the smooth running of a company yet rarely acknowledged as a legitimate strain and there’s repeatedly a positive bias towards the kind of people doing it – women. Perhaps that falls down to the perception that ‘women are just better at this stuff’ and therefore should be more inclined to do it. But it’s also symbolic of the assumptions we make about gender and how they manifest in common workplace practices and go largely under the radar.

Yet gender bias isn’t just an outer force inflicted on women by the world around them – it’s as much an internal struggle as it is external. We still perceive there to be a limit to our own capabilities even when evidence so drastically proves us wrong. Dozens of global studies have time and time again proven that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every single measure of profitability. Our competence is undeniable yet we’re still waiting for our self-assurance to catch up. The confidence gap is a very real phenomenon and it’s fuelled by the internalisation of these gender stereotypes.

People are a product of culture as much as culture is a product of people. You can’t put a woman in a world which consistently treats her as inferior and expect her not to take it to heart. This constant second-guessing of ourselves doesn’t just make us less likely to seize opportunities, it also manifests itself in our professional communication style. How often do you see men following up their requests with the infamous ‘no worries if not!’ or punctuating their recommendations with a question mark rather than a full stop? It’s a subtle indication of a much larger picture – one where women are quietly at war with stereotypes about what it means to be a woman.

Companies have both a moral obligation and a business imperative to play their part in challenging gender bias in all its forms. On an individual level, that means we all need to be aware of our biases, to question them and owe an extra level of attention to ensure we aren’t using them unconsciously. In turn, that will help to build a true culture of equal opportunity, one that fosters developing talent rather than inhibiting it and creates a space where voices of all kind are heard and recognised.