Outrage over the recent gender sensitivity training regarding Austin City Council members, aimed to facilitate the transition to a female-dominated council, begs the question: What’s the best way to battle gender stereotypes?
Rolling our eyes at or even cursing the belittling characterizations of women based on overt gender stereotypes is not going to help us move forward from this.
Having researched gender stereotypes in the workplace for more than a decade, we believe what needs to happen is a change in the way gender is discussed in order to facilitate progress toward gender equality.
People tend to believe, regardless of whether it is true or not, that men and women have meaningful differences in attitudes and behaviors.
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These beliefs may not always be negative, but believing that men and women are different can reinforce gender stereotypes, including the good with the bad, and polarize our impressions of gender differences.
In fact, men and women are much more alike than we are different, but focusing on gender differences skews our perception to the latter. Instead of focusing on how men and women are different, workplaces must emphasize unique strengths of individuals, regardless of gender.
More important, these beliefs about gender differences set up expectations that constrain how men and women should behave.
For example, the commonly held stereotype that women are less focused on numbers or worse at math. This stereotype sets up an expectation that women are not only less concerned about hard facts but also less able to comprehend financial reports, etc.
When women ask more questions about financial reports, it may come off as an indication that they lack competence when the same questions from men may be viewed as merely inquisitive. Knowing this, women may avoid discussing numbers altogether, further perpetuating the stereotype.
But it does not mean that women are inherently less able or interested in reading a financial report. It is the context of the situation and the expectations created by gender stereotypes that restricts their behavior.
So, what we see is that the mere presence of gender stereotypes creates constraints limiting women from behaving in ways that can dispel said stereotypes.
Stereotypes should not bind people. Simply discussing their prevalence — even in the context of their absurdity — can actually serve to reinforce them.
Our research suggests that a better way to dispel gender stereotypes is simply to see people, both men and women, engaging in counter-stereotypical behavior. Seeing men at home with the kids and women in the boardroom can help change our often subconscious views of gender by recalibrating what is perceived as normal.
The more commonplace these examples of men and women overcoming stereotypes become, the less restraining traditional stereotypes will be on behavior.
What should happen is we need to treat people as unique individuals rather than as members of their social category.
We need to broadcast examples of how traditional stereotypes are wrong. We need to propagate the stories of women and men engaging in counter-stereotypical behavior every day.
This needs to be more than just singular “model” demonstrations such as a woman who can follow a financial report, because such anecdotal evidence ends up being encoded as an exception to the rule, which sadly only serves to further reinforce the rule.
What we need is to promote the many everyday stories of counter-stereotypical behavior, so that what becomes internalized and encoded as “standard” is a broader array of options for both genders, and ultimately no longer “counter”-stereotypical.
Doing these things will enable progress toward a more egalitarian view of gender and with it hopefully a different cycle that promotes greater gender equality in terms of compensation, promotion and the basic treatment of men and women.
Emily Amanatullah is an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin. Catherine Tinsley is a professor of management at Georgetown University. Taeya Howell is a research scholar of management and organizations at New York University.