Stereotypes hurt women

Stereotypes about the two genders are what determines the view formed by top-level staff about the leadership potential of men and women, and not real data and objective information, according to a survey by Catalyst, the international non-profit organization monitoring the progress of women to the top of the working pyramid. Interviews conducted in the US and Europe with 296 executive staff, 168 of whom were women, showed a reliance on stereotypes, such as «women take care, men take charge,» which have nothing to do with any style of leadership. Instead it reveals the stereotype each leader carries depending on their gender. «Consequences from gender-based stereotyping could be destructive and hinder women’s course toward leadership, undermining their leadership skills,» the survey concluded. It adds how worrying it is that men consider women less able to solve problems, an ability that is indispensably linked to effective leadership. Therefore, given that the majority of top managers are male, this stereotype is widely accepted and even explains why women capture more than half of all management and professional positions but make up less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs. «This important study underscores that it’s what you don’t see and hear that often counts in the workplace,» said Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst. «By shining a spotlight on this often unspoken and insidious barrier to women’s advancement, it demonstrates empirically how gender-based stereotyping often operates as shorthand for fact and shortchanges women in the workplace.» Prior research shows most people are unaware of how stereotyping automatically influences their thinking and therefore believe that their perceptions are based on objective observations. Catalyst’s study asked senior executives to independently rate the effectiveness of women and then men leaders on 10 key leadership behaviors; top researchers found that there are many more similarities than differences between women and men in organizational settings. Jeanine Prime, PhD, author of the study and director of research at Catalyst, says that «our perceptions don’t reflect reality.» She explains that both male and female respondents cast women as better at stereotypically feminine «caretaking skills» such as supporting and rewarding. And both men and women asserted that men excel at more conventionally masculine «taking-charge» skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility. «It is often these ‘taking-charge’ skills – the stereotypically ‘masculine’ behaviors – that are seen as prerequisites for top-level positions,» she noted. While men and women leaders’ responses largely conform to gender stereotypes, men and women did differ in their judgments of problem-solving ability, arguably the most important leadership factor and the behavior that best embodies the «take-charge» stereotype. Women saw women as better problem solvers while men saw men as better problem solvers. In fact, problem solving was the behavior on which men judged themselves most superior to women. For women in business, it’s a real problem, the study reveals. Problem solving, influencing superiors, delegating responsibility, and other «taking-charge» skills are key components of what Catalyst’s study terms «interpersonal power.» The study suggests that women, robbed of this interpersonal power, must therefore rely more on «positional power,» their place in the hierarchy of their organizations. Yet, as women comprise only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers, their positional power appears markedly limited. After the completion of this series of surveys, Catalyst intends to address the underlying reasons behind the gender gap in the workplace and recommend actions to enable companies to develop and retain their talent, thereby increasing their competitiveness in the global marketplace. «In recent years companies have displayed an increasing commitment to the advance of women in the workplace. Yet, unfortunately, the representation of women in leadership remains stagnant. Despite these companies’ best efforts to implement diversity initiatives and create policies and procedures that encourage women’s representation in leadership, the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 has actually decreased from eight in 2003 to seven today, even though women hold more than half of all management and professional positions,» the report says. It also argues that unless corporations take steps to eradicate this bias, «women leaders will forever be undermined and misjudged, regardless of their talents or aptitudes. Moreover, the insidious effects of gender-based stereotyping are not limited to women.» At the end of the day it is the companies that suffer.

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