By Daffany Chan
With the growing focus on gender inequality, recognizing blatant instances of sexism in the workplace — such as sexual harassment and pay discrimination — has become more common. But what’s trickier is identifying the consequences of seemingly well-meaning stereotypes about women as they take on leadership roles at work. From being better collaborators to better multitaskers, these assumptions about women have been deemed forms of “benevolent sexism.” Defined as a “subtler form of sexism… expressed in a seemingly positive way,” it’s not surprising that these assumptions are more difficult to spot than blatant bias — after all, one might wonder, what harm could placing women on a pedestal really do?
It turns out that even if the assumptions about women are benevolent on the surface, the negative ramifications are glaringly obvious once you dig deeper into the issue. Presenting women as having gender-related strengths, even if they appear “positive,” still perpetuates stereotypes about women, placing them into boxes about how they should act. On top of that, because benevolent sexism is “a socially more accepted form of sexism,” it’s less likely to be challenged by both men and women. Thus, benevolent sexism can be a “silent killer” that works in an in an inconspicuous manner in the workplace, reinforcing gender roles and perpetuating systemic biases.
To unpack the issue of benevolent sexism in the workplace, we explore where the false claims about women originate, why these beliefs hurt women, and how to move beyond black-and-white notions of gender at work.
The Reality: Women and Men are More Alike Than Different
The research is in and it debunks the notion of fundamentally conflicting sex-based traits, revealing that women and men are actually more alike than different. The American Psychological Association refers to the “exaggerated claims of gender difference,” which are disproven by “studies show[ing] that one’s sex has little or no bearing on personality, cognition and leadership.” Similarly, the Harvard Business Review highlights the inconsistency of research that shows women are better multitaskers than men. In a recent webinar on Advancing Gender Equity, Orange Grove Consulting Managing Partner Jodi Detjen summed up the false claims: “I don’t like to generalize and say that all women are good at this, all men are good at this… When you look at the data… there’s so much overlap between men and women, there’s not just two things that matter.”
So if reality points to men and women being more similar than different, why does it often seem that gender-related strengths, such as that women are more nurturing, have some truth to them? The culprit, Detjen explained, is in the socialization of men and women: “People may have been socialized historically to have those skills, but that’s a socialization process, a training process, that women might have been through to make them more skilled at that level. But that doesn’t mean that women are naturally better.” When examining where men and women’s attitudes toward gender originate, it’s essential to look at the effect of culture and traditions on the socialization process. Since children receive messages about what it means to be female and male from their family, the media, and institutions like schools and religion, these messages can form lifelong unconscious biases about how men and women should act.
How Stereotypes Hurt Women in The Workplace
Some common “positive” assumptions you may hear about women in the workplace are that they are better multi-taskers and collaborators. Since women are typically seen as being more nurturing, interdependent, and considerate — stemming from the traditional image of a proper wife and mother — it is not surprising that women have been pigeonholed into these roles at work. But these seemingly benign assumptions about women can negatively impact their career trajectory. For example, studies show that women who don’t fit into the mold of a “caring” individual may suffer consequences when being hired or evaluated. Women seen as “nurturing” may also miss out on crucial networking opportunities and assignments in comparison to their male counterpoints. “If we sit there and say women are the ones who have these skills ‘naturally,’ we’re back in the same place,” Detjen explained. “Now we’re vilifying men and saying that women are on a pedestal. I don’t think that’s the way we want it to be.”
Reframing Stereotypes: 21st Century Training For All
To overcome gender biases, we must reframe stereotypes — even seemingly positive ones — in favor of an approach that doesn’t “bifurcate based on one arbitrary demographic piece that doesn’t do anybody any good,” Detjen explained. One method to tackle gender inequality is by developing the 21sts century skills in both women and men. “There is a certain set of 21st century skills that people need to have and it’s about a much more collaborative workplace,” Detjen shared. “It’s about the ability to manage multiple perspectives, the ability to take an idea and take it to a whole other level in order to create innovation… These are skill sets that people can learn…. It’s a skill that we need in the workplace and every single person can be trained in it.”
Becoming aware of the many forms that sexism can take place is essential to managing an inclusive workplace. By ensuring that all employees, regardless of gender, are trained with the skill sets to thrive at work, businesses can transcend the limiting beliefs of biological determinism and cultivate a true 21st century organization.
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