Office Stereotyping and How It Stifles

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

A few weeks ago, Neil French, a well-known advertising executive, told 300 people that women "don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to." He elaborated, saying that women are apt to "wimp out and go suckle something."

Just about the same time, a new survey announced that gender stereotypes still exist in the workplace.

Well, duh.

Of course they do. But when comments such as French's become public, it's easy to still be surprised and to think: "Is this really 2005?"

It is, and gender stereotypers is who we are. Men and women both.

According to a study released this month by the women's research and advocacy organization Catalyst, men consider women to be less adept at problem-solving. That sort of skill is, of course, pretty necessary to be an effective leader. And since men continue to sit in most chief executive spots throughout the country, any "male-held" stereotype will only continue to be in place, the study points out.

Stereotyping is a major reason "behind the gender gap in leadership," said Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst. The data, she said, "points a finger directly at problem-solving, which is a key leadership behavior. Senior men perceive that women are not as good problem-solvers as men."

Which is, for women and those men who care to see women in top positions, a problem.

Catalyst's study asked senior-level executives to rate the effectiveness of women and then men leaders on 10 key leadership behaviors.

The study found that both men and women viewed women as better at stereotypically feminine caretaking skills, such as supporting and rewarding. And both genders said men excel at more conventionally masculine taking-charge skills, such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.

In other words, men run the organization and women support them. That's just the way most of us still think, right?

But why, after all this time, and after all these years of listening to the facts and figures about the lack of women in top positions, are we still putting women in their stereotypical places?

"I think the laws have been won. Legally, we almost have it all," said Alison Stein, project director of the Younger Women's Task Force at the National Council of Women's Organizations.

But, she said, those laws don't change the subtle discrimination that women face in the workplace.

That could be partly because women are shown falling into these stereotypes in life outside the office, too.

If a woman and man have a child, the school still often asks for the mother's name as caretaker. Check out any commercial for cleaning supplies: It's the woman doing the vacuuming. (Sorry, Mom, but that's not the case in my house.)

A commercial for child's cough medicine? It's the mom tending to the child, bedside, in the middle of the night.

But in reality, it's increasingly both parents who do the day-care picking up, the cooking and the cleaning. Generation X fathers are asking to leave work early to hit their children's soccer games, and an increasing number of married women are the sole breadwinners. (Even one of the main characters on the popular television show "Desperate Housewives" went off to work this season as her husband decided to stay at home with the kids.)

In recent years, a notable number of Gen X women (who have been told by their mother's generation they can have it all) opted out of the workforce to raise a child. But considering the fact that gender stereotypes are still so prevalent in the workplace, researchers and women's advocates question the reasons some (of course not all) of the working women decide to stay home full time.

"You have to ask yourself, if that many women are choosing to do that, is it really a choice?" Stein said.

One has to wonder, indeed.

The fact is, women hold 50.3 percent of all management and professional positions. But only 7.9 percent of Fortune 500 top earners and 1.4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.

Is that because women aren't ambitious or willing and eager to take over the top spots? Or is it because they aren't groomed for positions beyond middle management or human resources or other "typically female" jobs because they are the caregivers of the office, not the leaders?

During the data-collecting process of the Catalyst study, the head researcher discussed the report with a few chief executives. One told the researcher that he thought the idea of diversity or inclusion was to bring someone different to the team or table. So, he proudly told the researcher, he liked to hire women because they are better at team-building and supporting.

The researcher pointed out that was exactly the kind of stereotyping that stops female advancement, even though that was not his intent. "Diversity and inclusion are important, but don't presuppose what they are going to bring," she told him. "Bring them in because of them, not because of assumptions about what they might be good at."

Or not good at, as far as people such as French (who has since resigned from his job at WPP Group) are concerned.

"I think he is a walking example of the kind of stereotyping we're talking about," Lang said. "He's saying because women are mothers, they can't be good leaders. And we know from all our research, that's just not the case. Women are ambitious, just as ambitious as men."

Forget the research. Just ask the woman sitting next to you what she expects out of her work life. It might be a little enlightening for all of us.

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