Although women make up half of the nation's workforce, they hold only 16.4% of corporate offices in the Fortune 500, 14.7% of Fortune 500 board seats and 1.6% of Fortune 500 CEO positions (Catalyst 2007). So what's new here?
Research that explains what may be going on at work. According to researchers Tinsley, Cheldelin, Schneider, and Amanatullah, who authored "Women at the Bargaining Table: Pitfalls and Prospects" women are in a classic double bind: "women may be perceived as competent but unlikable or as likable but incompetent." This bind exists because there are very strong female stereotypes in our culture.
Of course this is not news to any woman in the field, but these researchers discovered that "women who violate gendered expectations incur negative social consequences. In other words, evaluators tend to make negative judgments about women who behave in masculine ways to fulfill the needs of their jobs."
But if masculine means assertive, self-reliant and powerful, you can see how easily a woman can get screwed in the eyes of her beholders. This is often referred to as backlash and because women fear backlash they often don't act in their best interests. The researchers found that both men AND women negatively evaluate women who do not behave in stereotypically female ways.
The choices then are these—work within the stereotypes or be careful in situations to not activate gender stereotypes.
The researchers point to an experiment that looked at flirting in a negotiation context. When both women and men flirted in the negotiation, women were perceived as more likable. As the researchers noted, because flirting is seen as more stereotypically feminine behavior, the women may have benefited from using it. Furthermore, the "flirting had no impact on the measure of the female negotiator's perceived competence, although it did diminish her perceived trustworthiness."
Further, the researchers found that gender stereotypes are usually not activated in contexts where resources are abundant ("Threats tend to heighten the negative stereotypes of both individuals and other social groups."), the woman is the boss or when women act for the benefit of others. Women acting for the benefit of others, like their teams, is consistent with the stereotypes we have of women, that they are collaborative and nurturing.
Not everyone works within gender stereotypes, but as they are subconsciously pervasive, the argument is that it's important to understand that these stereotypes are often at play. And hopefully that will help us level the playing field.
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