Gender Stereoptypes with Professor Alice Eagly.

I was lucky to hear from some of the brightest researchers in behavioural science and diversity at the BAD Conference in Toronto recently. On the plane home, I made a promise to explore some of their ideas individually and consider the implications for the workplace. Writing a short article often helps me do that, and I hope it will be useful for others too.

This is the first of a three-part series. I’ve started with Professor Alice Eagly, a giant in the field, and her keynote on Gender Stereotypes. Anything not attributed to Professor Eagly is my interpretation of her work and I would encourage you to explore your own as you read through.

 

Gender STEREOTYPES with Professor Alice Eagly.

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Let’s start with a well trodden, often dismissive response to the inclusion agenda - “I just treat people as people, why can’t everyone else do the same?”. The research behind gender stereotypes should make us all think twice. Its lessons aren’t always comfortable but they offer a challenging and contrarian lens for gender equality at home and at work.

 

Think of a stereotype like an expectation.

When we talk about gender stereotypes, we’re talking about how we expect women and men to think and behave. These expectations are ingrained in us from an early age and often operate unconsciously. They influence the decisions we make about ourselves and others, silently shaping who we become and how we treat those around us.

We all face pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. When women or men step outside of these expectations - a female leader or a working father for instance - they’re more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination. It’s here where Professor Eagly views stereotypes as ‘taking on a life of their own and supporting inequality and segregation’.

 

What stereotypes do we hold about men and women?

Drawing on data from over 70 years of opinion polls in the US, Professor Eagly and her co-researchers classified behaviours into three groups. As you read them below, consider whether they have any gender implications for you and the broader population. How do you think these opinions might have changed over the decades?

 
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Three behavioural groups we associate with men and women.

Communal - affectionate, compassionate, emotional, nurturing, romantic, unselfish.

Agentic - aggressive, ambitious, arrogant, calm in emergencies, confident, courageous.

Competent - innovative, intelligent, level-headed, logical, organised.

 

Professor Eagly showed how these expectations have changed over those 70 years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our collective belief that men are more agentic has remained consistent over time. Her other insights may defy your assumptions:

  1. The stereotype that women are more communal has steadily strengthened since the 1940’s - our association between women and affection, compassion etc. is at its peak.

  2. Women have a growing advantage over men in competence – we believe that women are likely to be more innovative, intelligent, logical etc. than men.

  3. Our belief in these stereotypes is consistent and shared across multiple demographic groups – have a look at the analyses below. The demographic of respondents is on the left. Blue represents the belief that men are more likely to exhibit the given behaviour and red represents women. Intelligence has been separated out for individual analysis:

 
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 Why are these stereotypes so firmly entrenched?

Imagine someone who acts in the opposite direction of the analyses above - an ambitious, assertive woman, or an affectionate, nurturing man. Would they be treated differently from someone acting in line with their stereotype?

The expectations we have of women and men are socially and self-regulated. We all play our part in upholding them. They exist in the ideals we are taught to aspire to and our feelings of self-worth when we don’t match up. As above, they’re also found in the gendered judgments we make of others - consciously or unconsciously - when they don’t conform to stereotype.

But as Professor Eagly had shown in her analysis, expectations can and have shifted alongside social progress. The change in our beliefs about male and female ‘competence’ go hand-in-hand with rapid and sustained improvements in US/UK education equality over the last 50 years. What would have happened if this had been matched in the home or the workplace?

We can only speculate. Because men still dominate the leadership of all our social institutions - corporate, legal, medical and political - and remain likely to be the main provider in families. Women are still more likely to be in occupations favouring social skills and social contribution and remain likely to be the main homemaker in families.

 

How can we make progress?

Despite a entrenched social context, organisations can still have an influence on gender stereotypes within their walls. Go back to the list of behaviours and re-imagine them as organisational values. If you build a culture obsessed with winning for its own sake - and over 25% of FTSE100 organisations have ‘excellence’, ‘winning’ or ‘being the best’ as a corporate value - then you are promoting agentic behaviour. Build a hierarchical, individualistic and competitive environment and you go further still.

Men will be further advantaged by gender stereotypes in this culture, particularly in leadership positions. Not because they outperform but because they force women into an impossible dichotomy: conform to expectation and be undervalued; break the stereotype and fight the disadvantage it brings. It leads to a hard truth:

Leadership is a labyrinth for women
— Professor Alice Eagly, BAD Conference 2018

A better understanding of this labyrinth will help us find a path to progress. I can’t think of any facet of gender inequality where the research wouldn't have an impact but I’ve outlined two examples below. You’ll find many of the effective answers don’t break our deeply ingrained expectations (changing minds), but work around them (changing context).

 

Problem: Equal pay - Women are likely to be paid less than men for comparable roles.

Traditional Response: Women must not be as good at negotiating their salary. Let’s offer some training.

Rethinking with Gender Stereotypes:

This response assumes women and men will be treated in the same way when negotiating salary. When in fact, a man can push confidently and assertively for higher pay without the same fear of stereotype backlash. When women are asked to fight for fair pay, they are forced to face negative consequences men do not.

Alternative Intervention:

Step back from gender and the answer becomes simple - paying people more because they shout loudest is not accurate, not fair and is unlikely to lead to higher performance. Transparent salary bands avoid the labyrinth of stereotyping, pay people for their value, and is a far more effective strategy for reducing the equal pay component of the gender pay gap. It is one of the top ‘effective actions’ recommended by the UK Government and Behavioural Insight Team.

 

Problem: Flexibility - Working Dads and Mums need to balance home and work life equally.

Traditional Response: Let’s change legislation and corporate policies to allow freedom for all.

Rethinking with Gender Stereotypes:

This is a great start but fails to address the enormous pressure that men may feel when requesting flexible working for childcare, most recently reported in the BITC’s Equal Lives Report. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that significant changes in legislation and company policies has led to negligible change in flexible working uptake over the past five years in the UK.

Alternative Interventions:

Rethinking flexible working as a behavioural challenge can lead to completely new solutions - there’s a brilliant article on how to encourage change through ‘nudges’ in this HBR article. An appreciation of gender stereotypes helps us see how this issue may impact men and women differently….

Here’s one idea - we know men feel the need to lie about the need for flexibility and are significantly influenced by their manager. So, why don’t we draw on the power of social norms to influence this interaction and break the stereotype?

Gather stories of men already working flexibly in your organisation and have these automatically sent to a manager and employee at the point the latter applies for paternity leave and again when they return. Encourage a conversation about flexible working against the context of positive male role models, at the time decisions about working practices are made.

 

There are many more. I would go as far to say any analysis of gender pay inequality, promotion inequality or under-representation that doesn’t consider stereotyping as a fundamental part of the problem is incomplete. Thank you for reading, and thank you to Professor Eagly for an inspiring keynote speech:

Gender stereotype frame our social interactions; set the context for our behaviour. They’re not always salient, but they’re there, waiting to pounce.
— Professor Alice Eagly, BAD Conference 2018
James Elfer