Women, especially those pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated professions, are often the targets of gender-infused stereotypes. At its essence, a stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image of idea of a person or thing.” Of course, women and men have, historically, served different societal functions, and many professions were until very recently reserved for men. As such, even as these roles have begun to evolve, the way women are observed and expected to behave at the work place has not followed suit. Women struggle daily in battling these stereotypes, which often hinders their performance and productivity at work. This article details three of the main stereotypes and generalizations surrounding professional women, which affect the contribution women make at the workplace.
Stereotype #1: Women do not possess the required skills that men inherently possess for certain professions or job titles.
A common misperception is that, while women are skilled in role-specific tasks, they are not fit to manage people, lead, or collaborate. At the same time, an identical male (in qualification, experience, etc.) will be assumed to be able to lead well, delegate responsibly, and effectively communicate with peers. This idea, which leads to an underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, is damaging for a number of reasons. Recent research by Korn Ferry International — one of the largest international consultancy groups for organizational behavior — suggests that women are better at using soft skills, such as demonstrating empathy, adapting to changing work environments, working as part of a team, and managing conflict. Thus, while this stereotype leads to the perception that women are ill-fit for leadership in the workplace, in fact, female leaders are badly needed.
Stereotype #2: Women do not take their career or jobs as seriously as men, and thus are not as dedicated to the work.
The understanding that men are more serious in their endeavors to earn a living is very common, reminiscent of the historical archetype of men as the provider. Conversely, women are often perceived to have other concerns that supersede their interest in the workplace, such as a family. A young professional woman may be independent, confident, and entirely dedicated to her work, yet these factors are overlooked if she also has a family to care for (this relates to our third stereotype). Meanwhile, a single woman is either thought to be just waiting to establish her family in the future, or, if she is older, is subject to a number of other negative stereotypes of single professional women. Meanwhile, men — irrespective of their marital and familial status — are perceived to have unfaltering determination and commitment to their work.
Stereotype #3: Women are primarily responsible for their children and hence will take more breaks from work and inevitably put in less hours as compared to men.
As just mentioned, when a professional woman has a family, it is often assumed that she prioritizes her role as a mother over her career. This is, however, not the case for fathers. As parental roles (like employment) continue to evolve, women and men seem to be sharing more of the responsibilities that were once assumed to be a mother’s job. In this regard, our professional culture should embrace these changing family dynamics, and flexibility should be shown not just to mothers but to parents in general. Such a change will reduce the negative effect that this stereotype has had on women, whose career potentials are often seen to be limited by nature of their motherhood.
These three stereotypic depictions, and no doubt many more, plague women in the professional sphere. Even as formal barriers to entry have come down (i.e., women are now allowed to join professions that were once male-only), these perceptional hurdles have not diminished. Compounded with other racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers, these stereotypes inhibit the contribution of women, particularly minority women, the world over. By discouraging women from participating in the labor force — or segmenting them to specific roles — we hold back the enormous potential for growth and gains to human capital that would result of full-inclusion in the workplace, gender and otherwise. To this end, developing countries are put at an even greater disadvantage.
Allowing women to work, without barriers, will improve outcomes for everyone. The question that falls on use is how do we mold these misperceptions such that we can move past them? Will we ever be able to fully move past them? Success in this endeavor can come only from a collaborative initiative, which aims to ease these burdens so often faced by women, and pushes men to be more forceful advocates and supporters of women’s choices. Most importantly, women need to step up to support women and their choices inside and outside the home.