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Workplace Stereotypes

Watch and listen to Lauren Castle talking about gender stereotypes
Fortunately, the workplace stereotypes that many of us have grown up with are beginning to disappear. If you watch films from the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you’ll often find very gendered and heteronormative examples of women being treated as sexualised objects, and typically in lower status roles while serving their male bosses, or they are simply just interested in finding a husband. Or you’ll see that blonde women are portrayed as less intelligent, overly sexualised or ‘ice maidens’. These stereotypes are parodied in more modern
films (such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) and reflected in period dramas (such as Mad Men). Fortunately, both in the world of work and its portrayal in visual pop culture, we can see these stereotypes being challenged with alternative role models. But despite these shifts we still find enduring assumptions about how men and women differ in the workplace. These can be classified as characteristic-based differences and lifestyle differences (although to an extent the former can lead to the latter). Characteristics refer to assumptions made about different qualities men and women are assumed to have, such as men having more leadership qualities, more ambition and more confidence than women, men are also expected to be less emotional than women.
This builds on the assumption that men are innately more likely to be driven in the workplace and have the qualities that organisations require for success. Lifestyle differences relate to assumptions about the work-home interface. Women are assumed to be more likely to be the primary care-givers and thus are more likely to want time off work often at short notice to care for children, or be less committed to work because of their family-orientated responsibilities. They could also be regarded as likely to take time off from work if of child bearing age, and therefore, they might be seen as less worthy of employment or training.
To discriminate against women or men on the basis of these assumptions is against the law, but evidence suggests that it is still prevalent, particularly in relation to pregnancy and maternity. While some of it is unconscious and we only become aware of it when it’s brought to our attention, it is also a form of systematic discrimination. We’ll look at this in more detail when we explore unconscious bias training in week four. Workplace stereotypes can also influence how people behave. For example, if men are assumed to have natural leadership qualities, or that masculine qualities are seen to be synonymous with leadership, women who consider themselves to be feminine might not consider themselves to be suitable for a leadership role.
These stereotypes don’t just create external barriers, they can create internal ones too. And these can be enforced by expectations of how women should behave, with potential sanctions or backlash if they don’t conform, such as the withdrawal of support or opportunity. This relates to the gender norms explored in week 1. Gender stereotypes are therefore both descriptive (suggesting how we do behave) and prescriptive (indicating how we should behave). Even when women do break the mould by, for example, taking on a leadership position, they are more likely to experience further unfavourable stereotyping.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter argued that women in public roles either tended to be viewed as ‘pets’ (sfavourite, cute, but unlikely to be taken seriously), ‘mothers’ (responsible, serious, but overly parental), as the ‘seductress’ (assumed to be flirtatious and using her feminine wiles to progress) or the ‘battle-axe’ (tough, mean, and masculine but inappropriately so). There isn’t an obvious equivalent for men and so the consequence is that women are judged differently and unfavourably. The ways in which women are treated in the sporting industry for example, has recently been addressed in a Nike advertisement called “dream crazier”.
Nike is an American multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporation that sells sports apparel, equipment and accessories, and their advert is narrated by Serena Williams, a female American tennis player who has ranked as the world number 1 for her sporting achievements. The ad explores the ways in which women in sport who show passion and emotion are called “dramatic” or “hysterical”, “irrational” or “too emotional”. She goes on to say how she was called “crazy” in the media and by the public for having a baby and then coming back to work. This advert reflects the gendered backlash these women currently experience, while advocating for the equal treatment of men and women in sports. Stereotypes don’t just harm women, they also harm men and the organisations themselves.
Men can lose out by finding it harder to take on roles that are traditionally seen as reserved for women, or for behaving in ways that are considered feminine, for example. Organisations lose out through missing out on talent in the workplace if they operate in a sexist way and internalise gender stereotypes. And this kind of discrimination can work in two ways. Firstly, by wrongly assuming that women cannot exhibit the qualities that are usually ascribed to men. Secondly, by assuming that masculine characteristics and traditional working patterns (that might intrinsically exclude those with caring responsibilities) are necessarily better than the alternatives, such as working patterns that are based on feminine characteristics and flexible working patterns.

In this video Lauren Castle (University of Exeter) explores workplace stereotypes.

Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter with contributions from Lauren Castle.

The films and televised serials referenced in this section are: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2004, America. Set in the 1970s. Mad Men, 2007-2015 (seven series), America. Set in the 1960s.

If you would like to watch the Nike advert discussed in the video you can below:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

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Understanding Gender Inequality

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