“Life is not fair; get used to it.” The famous first rule of Bill Gates’s “11 rules you will never learn in school” resonates with everybody, but probably more with women than men. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, 108 years are needed to close the global gender gap. While classical economic models predict that discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as gender should naturally disappear thanks to competition, reality seems to tell a different story.
The lack of women in male-dominated and high-paying industries such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is often cited as a critical factor behind the gender gap. Even though girls perform as well as boys in math and science standardized tests at school, fewer women consider a professional career in these fields. Women seem to face different hurdles that have little to do with their abilities. Gender stereotypes are one of them.
What are gender stereotypes?
While men are generally portrayed as having agency characteristics such as competence, achievement-orientation, inclination to take charge, autonomy and rationality, women are associated with communal characteristics such as concern for others, affiliation tendencies, deference and emotional sensitivity. These characteristics are not only different, they tend to be oppositional: lay people on average believe that men should not be excessively warm (communal) and that women should not be excessively dominant (agency). Research on these generalizations has been extensive and shows they are consistent across culture, time and context.
Stereotypes often serve as shortcuts for forming impressions of people and guide our decisions, without people being completely aware of it. Gender preconceptions have important consequences for the workplace. Here are some examples:
Whenever women are working with men on male gender-typed tasks, men are more likely to be credited for joint successes and women are more likely to be blamed for joint failures. These negative performance expectations can only be overturned when the woman’s individual contribution is unquestionable, or her task competence is very high.
Research shows that women are held to stricter standards for promotion: promoted women have higher performance ratings than promoted men, and performance ratings are more strongly related to promotions for women than for men.
When women counter their stereotype and break expectations about how they “should” behave, they pay the cost: dominant women are perceived as less likeable and less hireable than men. A 2016 survey of more than 30,000 employees found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30% more likely than men to be labelled intimidating, bossy or aggressive.