Stereotyping: when sexism hinders job performance

Aug 16, 2022

6 mins

Stereotyping: when sexism hinders job performance
Christophe NguyenLab expert

Occupational psychologist, teacher at the IAE (Lyon School Of Management) and speaker.

Laure Girardot

Rédactrice indépendante.

THE SOCIAL SPACE - Why does our behavior change when we’re with others? And what about our behavior at work? Christophe Nguyen, our expert in work psychology, looks at what happens when stereotyping is accepted as normal practice in the business world. The experts call this a “stereotype threat” and the conclusion is that it exists in our workplaces. It can be a major obstacle to individual and team performance too. So what exactly is it? And what can we do about it?

Case study: Gender pressure leads to feelings of resignation

To help paint a picture of how stereotyping can turn into an issue in the workplace, Nguyen gives the example of Marie, who worked at a tech company in a sector which is dominated by men. “She had agreed to work in a sexist environment where salacious remarks and brutal behavior were the norm,” says Nguyen. She used to tell herself, ‘It’s a man’s world and you have to accept it,’ and ‘It’s the price you have to pay to continue working’ in the belief that it was helping her to tolerate the toxic atmosphere.

Nguyen says, “Marie also explained that she needed to play the ‘nice guy’ to be accepted. Worse than that, she automatically limited her ambitions and hopes for advancement because, as a female in a male profession, she received little positive feedback or affirmation,” says Nguyen. How does an environment, under latent or explicit sexist pressure, induce both counterproductive behaviors and limiting thoughts? And does this have a negative effect on mental health?

Social experiments: Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is a widely discussed concept in social psychology. The focus is on why certain people, who are viewed and treated as stereotypes, have more difficulty in terms of performance than others. Marie internalized that being a woman made her less efficient. Here are two experiments that allow us to understand this phenomenon.

Social experiment 1: Stereotype threat against women in the workplace

In 2015, Von Hippel, Sekaquaptewa, and McFarlane, as part of the experiment “Stereotype threat among women in finance: Negative Effects on Identity, Workplace Well-being, and Recruiting,” studied gender stereotypes that hinder the success of women. The focus of their investigation included so-called masculine professions such as finance. In the financial sector, women are perceived as sensitive individuals, overly emotional, and/or lacking in managerial skills. These traits are considered incompatible with professional success. As some in the field of finance believe, women are less involved in their careers and more involved in their families. Based on these stereotypes, it’s not surprising that women are less favored when it comes to hiring for traditionally male fields, receive fewer opportunities for development and promotion, and continue to earn less than their male counterparts. Even though gender diversity has evolved considerably in finance, the proportion of women to men declines rapidly with seniority.

To understand the influence of this type of prejudice on women’s careers, an experiment was conducted with 512 women in the financial sector. They responded to an online questionnaire on a voluntary basis. The questions focused on chronic feelings of stereotype threat, and what the authors call “identity separation,” that is, not identifying with one’s job. Well-being at work and the level of recommendation for other women to choose finance as a career were also assessed.

What did the results reveal?

  • Unsurprisingly, frequent exposure to a stereotype leads people to disengage.

  • Stereotype threat leads to identity separation. In other words, the more you’re targeted by stereotypes, the less you identify with your profession as a woman. In this regard, women implement a strategy of distinction between their “feminine self” and their “professional self” which leads to a type of conflict between gender and profession. The consequence revealed is that the more you’re a victim of stereotypes, the less you encourage other women in your profession. It’s a vicious cycle.

  • Being the victim of these stereotypes is linked to worsened psychological health.

Stereotypes have a negative effect on people’s health and engagement, but what about performance? Let’s take a look at the second experiment.

Social experiment 2: The effect of stereotype threat on driving performance

Starting with the stereotype “women drive poorly,” a number of academics in France launched an experiment in 2011 to test the theory. The title of their study translates as Women drivers: The effect of stereotype threat and anger on a woman’s driving performance. In 2007, the driver’s license pass rate was 48% for women versus 58% for men. Yet, in 2005, female drivers accounted for less than one-third of driver’s license withdrawals and were convicted of traffic offenses in 11 fewer instances than men were. The purpose of the study was to understand whether the stereotype of women as dangerous drivers affects their driving and their success on the driving test.

The figures are similar in the United States. In 2014, the practical driving portion pass rate for a driver’s license in the US was 44% for women compared to 50% for men. However, statistically, women are safer drivers than men after receiving their licenses. The New York Times article Behind the Wheel, Women are Safer Drivers Than Men points out that women cause fewer fatal car accidents than men do.

For the European experiment, two groups of women were asked to perform an aptitude test under different conditions. In the first, female drivers were told that they were being tested on their ability to drive – a “diagnostic” condition: “You’re participating in a study to highlight the differences in the driving ability between men and women.”

The other group was told they were participating in a study on driving in general – a “non-diagnostic” condition: “You’re participating in a study to test slides that will be used in an upcoming experiment on driving.” The researchers wanted to study the emotional state of the women through questionnaires given to the two groups. Only the instructions changed; the test and questionnaires remained exactly the same for both groups.

The women in the first sample performed worse than those in the second. The first group of women identified anger-related words quicker than neutral words. Faced with the fear of being judged on the basis of negative stereotypes, women show a decrease in performance following an increase in negative thinking, according to a number of studies. The reduction in cognitive abilities caused by anxiety or anger explains the link between the stereotype threat and lower performance.

What lessons can be learned from these experiments? First of all, these studies are real tools for preventing the psychosocial risks caused by stereotypes and their effects on performance. While it seems obvious that stereotypes must be opposed, the way this is done is just as important as the actions to be implemented. In addition, we can question quota policies which, when put forward, can remind us of a stereotype threat in certain contexts.

4 ways to fight against stereotype threats at work

Keep an eye on indicators of gender diversity, but not only to combat stereotypes

Take a look at gender diversity through mixed teams. Gender diversity at work is prioritized in many HR policies, as initiated by various laws on professional equality. In France, the Rixain law of 2021 requires a 40% quota of management positions in large companies be filled by women, a new index of equality in higher education, and even better access to public investment for entrepreneurial women. Beyond these figures, a quota policy if implemented should avoid stigmatization and be followed by an awareness-raising process to thwart stereotypes. In the first experiment, we saw that being a woman in a man’s sector doesn’t necessarily change perspectives and can even create negative effects on a person’s health, job commitment, and work performance. We shouldn’t stop with awareness though. Training employees on stereotype threats will encourage gender diversity and promote the implementation of psychosocial risk prevention programs.

Investing in diversity: a performance lever for a company

By focusing on inclusive policies, businesses will generate sustainable performance. This isn’t “social for social’s sake.” Gender diversity is a driver of growth as more than 57% of organizations say that initiatives in favor of gender diversity improve work performance and 75% of companies attentive to gender diversity in positions of responsibility report a 5-20% increase in profits. Positive effects are also felt in terms of innovation, cooperation, and psychological safety. For greater efficiency, companies have every interest in working systemically, especially with schools. If we look at a field such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), which is male-dominated at the moment, only 28% of women follow STEM professions in the US.

Sexist behavior: proposing a “zero tolerance” framework

Companies must establish a firm foundation of respect for others. This is indispensable for resisting gender stereotypes, which are sometimes rooted in corporate cultures. Some organizations have a business culture that tolerates or even enjoys crude jokes or inappropriate language, which creates exclusion, psychosocial risks, and non-performance. It’s up to companies to enact a “zero tolerance” policy in order to curb serious abuse such as sexual harassment. To transform behavior over the long term, penalties aren’t enough, it may be necessary to educate all employees. Clear and formal boundaries need to be set. The “it’s always been like that” is less and less acceptable, and this is even more true for younger generations.

Train all employees right from onboarding

From the employee to the management team to the CEO, everyone must be made aware of sexism and stereotypes. Managers play a crucial role as they’re on the front lines. They need to be trained and equipped so that they can detect abusive behavior, discuss it with their team and alert the right people, such as HR, representative bodies, or internal staff, etc. More generally, a program to fight stereotypes should integrate policies of diversity, equality between men and women, and non-discrimination. Starting with onboarding, or integration, this is an ideal stage to set in place rules around working together.

Names have been changed

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

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