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Talking About Gender Stereotyping May Reinforce It


We won’t erase the gender wage gap by ignoring it, but a recent article from Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant shows that just talking about it won’t be enough to solve the problem, either. In fact, discussing stereotypes might just make the problem worse, not better.


(Photo Credit: Gilles Lelet/Flickr)

Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is deeply invested in addressing issues of gender inequality. In a recent article for The New York Times, Sandberg teamed up with Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, to address the topic of gender discrimination in the workplace, and how to effect lasting change. 

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First of all, we have to admit that our society’s persistent struggle with gender stereotyping in the workplace is real. Although progress has been made in this area, the problem continues. Sandberg and Grant explain that the strong gender stereotypes held in our culture impact the way we view performance. Men are favored over equally qualified women when it comes to hiring, pay, evaluation, and promotion. Not only does this hurt women, but it also hurts organizations, which are missing out on valuable talent and leadership by undervaluing women.

Once that’s understood, it might intuitively seem as though educating professionals about the problem, about the specifics of the discrimination and the stereotyping, would be a step in the right direction. But, Sandberg and Grant found just the opposite to be true. In fact, talking about stereotyping may make it worse

In a series of experiments, Prof. Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia told test subjects either that stereotypes were rare or common, and then asked them to give their perceptions of women. Those who had been told that gender stereotypes were common rated women as less career-oriented and more family-oriented. A further study backed up these findings using transcripts of job interviews.

“When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28 percent less interested in hiring the female candidate,” write Grant and Sandberg. “They also judged her as 27 percent less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates.”

Several other studies have pointed in the same direction. When people are told that gender stereotyping is common, they are actually more likely to stereotype. Sandberg and Grant reflect on why this could be the case:

We can find clues in research led by Prof. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. In a national park, Professor Cialdini’s team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: ‘Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.’ Even with this warning, theft rates stood at 5 percent. So they made the sign more severe: ‘Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.’ This warning influenced theft, but not in the direction you’d expect: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent.The message people received was not ‘Don’t steal petrified wood,’ but ‘Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behavior.’ We have the same reaction when we learn about the ubiquity of stereotypes. If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.

So, the question quickly becomes, how can we educate about gender stereotyping in a way that helps the situation rather than making it worse?

Here are a few things to consider.

1. First we have to accept that stereotyping does impact women in the workplace.

Sure, things have gotten better, but women still face unique professional challenges due to our culture’s beliefs about gender differences. This is having a negative impact on organizations as a whole, who are missing out on the talent and leadership women can offer.

2. Education and training aimed at transforming gender based perceptions is important.

Ignoring the problem, or expecting it to go away without conversation, won’t get us anywhere. This work must be done by both men and women since both genders are guilty of stereotyping.

3. The emphasis should be on the idea that stereotyping is wrong, not that it’s common.

The solution isn’t to stop talking about gender and stereotypes. Instead, the emphasis should be on communicating that these biases are wrong and unacceptable. When the focus is on the pervasive nature of gender stereotyping, it can reinforce or legitimize the prejudice. A more effective message is that most people don’t want to discriminate and that there are negative consequences for doing so. This encourages people to conquer their biases rather than helping them normalize them.

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How can we educate about gender stereotyping in the most productive and beneficial way? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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Suppose women were continuously denied any rights whatsoever in the world of work, the productive world. Suppose men had always had all the rights in the world of children, the REproductive world, and continued to demand even more rights in that world. What would feminists say? At a minimum, this: “How dare men control all the rights in the reproductive world and demand even more, while women are denied any rights whatsoever in the world of work!” Onto the streets… Read more »

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