The recent Nike ad, “Dream Crazier” inspired me to write this post about gender bias and stereotypes concerning women in the workplace. The Nike ad with Serena Williams as the narrator celebrates the ability of women in sports who succeed through their full potential, in the face of adversity. The adversity embodies the gender biases and stereotypes women face in their careers. Within the ad, stereotypical descriptions of women are used:
“If we show emotion, we’re called dramatic. If we want to play against men, we are nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, delusional. When we stand for something, we are unhinged. When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us. And if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy.”
Do these stereotypes sound familiar?
These statements are all too familiar to me. In one form or another, I have heard, “If we are assertive, we’re aggressive and overbearing.” I entered the management level of my career as the Operations Manager for the telecommunication call center with over two hundred employees consisting of four male supervisors directly reporting to me. During my annual evaluation, my male boss informed me I was aggressive after complimenting and highly scoring me on the overall KIPs increase of the call center. Through utter confusion, I asked, “How so?” The answer was, there had been complaints about my authoritative tone in giving directives.
For weeks I mulled over this feedback, questioned my management skills, clammed up and became indirect in delegating. I eventually quit three months after, only to face the same situation at my next management position. This was not going to work, I needed to change something. I decided to research, read every book and articles possible on women leadership. It would have been great if all I invested in those university years, would have covered gender bias in the workplace, post-graduation. Perhaps even the subject of emotional tax? (I’ll save that for a different post).
Gender beliefs in large part shape our culture and behaviors in a way that affect our everyday life. As adults, most of our lives are spent at work. Therefore, being aware of this topic is essential to your career development. Gender stereotypical judgments comprise of two distinct forms of gender stereotypes: descriptive and prescriptive. Burgess & Borgida, defines a descriptive stereotype as what males and females are typically like, whereas prescriptive stereotypes describe what males and females should be like. These stereotypes comprise of communal characteristics such as men are leaders, aggressive, ambitious, etc. and women are affectionate, gentle, soft-spoken, yielding, etc.
According to Burgess & Borgida, both gender stereotypes lead to discrimination labeled as “disparate impact” (“institutional practices result in hiring and promotion decisions that are biased against a class of people”) and “disparate treatment” (hostile environment harassment or through the devaluation of their performance”). In my experience, I violated the prescriptive stereotypes by being assertive and direct resulting in the devaluation as mentioned earlier of my performance.
Through experiencing gender stereotype discrimination within the workplace, I became my own victim through the practice of detrimental self-defeating actions to my career. These actions provoked a change of behavior, such as becoming passive, taking on more by not delegating tasks and responsibilities appropriately, and self-doubting my communication skills. I also battled with the idea of changing my management methods just to comply with these stereotypes. It was clear that the world would not change to accommodate to my career advancement. So, I needed to learn how to navigate these gender stereotypes to move forward. It only took a few changes.
Through experiencing gender stereotype discrimination within the workplace, I became my own victim through the practice of detrimental self-defeating actions to my career.
Flexing Your Communication Style
To deflect stereotypes, as women, we must learn the balancing act of communicating, learn when to be assertive and when to be warm and nurturing, without compromising our personality and competence. A great example would be, in planning and idea sharing it is best to listen first and be inclusive, whereas in challenging times it is best to be aggressive and decisive. Building rapport is a great pillar to build on by maintaining direct eye contact, using your sense of humor, delegating with a warm, firm tone of voice and conveying concise messages. Being mindfully aware to continually change our communication style to adapt to any presented situations will “flex” your communication muscle in the workplace.
Be Aware: Assess Your Boss & Team
It is critical to observe your boss’s behavior in different situations, understand how they process information, and decipher their biases or preconceptions. The same goes for your team members. This will help determine if your boss is a right fit for you, and adjust your communication style during your interactions. Who better to observe than the person who is responsible for your annual performance review? Know your team members for effective communication, but more importantly to manage the subjective feedback and perception.
Collect Your Allies (The Byte Club)
Your assessment of your team will aid in identifying potential allies within your workplace. You will be able to be each other’s check and balances, support in various circumstances, and assist in career advancement. I often witness women practicing this strategy in male-dominant industries. For instance, female staffers during Obama’s terms used “amplification” tactics to ensure their voices were heard and ideas were making it to the table. In meetings when a woman made key points, other fellow women would reiterate it and give credit to its author. This is POWERFUL. I really recommend women who desire more strategy, to read the Feminist Fight Club: A Survival for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett. This book is my workplace bible. (Follow the link here). For visual reference, watch Good Trouble Episode S1. 08 “The Byte Club” where Mariana forms an all-female workplace club dubbed “The Byte Club” as a support system and a circle for venting.
The characteristics of gender bias and stereotypes are often unconscious and woven into our social understanding and prevail to be an issue for women in the workplace. As a woman, it is critical at the dawn of our careers to be aware of gender biases and stereotypes, to manage day-to-day and future growth. We must be courageous enough to defend, support and sponsor fellow female colleagues as we identify and deploy strategies to overcome these biases.
Have you experienced workplace bias? Sharing your story, how you handled it, definitely aids in better defining how we can overcome gender bias in the workplace together!