The number of women in leadership roles has increased. In 1995 there were no female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; in the first quarter of 2017, there were 27, according to Pew Research Center.
Researchers have investigated reasons for the scarcity of female leaders, and chief among them is stereotypes, which can thwart women’s advancement to leadership roles. Female leaders often face the problem of being perceived as either nice and supportive (and thus, not a strong leader) or headstrong and assertive (and thus, not feminine enough). In contrast, people tend to describe both men and leaders in similar ways (e.g., self-reliant, dominant).
Such stereotypes can elicit stereotype threat, which occurs when a group member (e.g., a woman) worries about confirming a negative stereotype about that group, according to a study by Claude M. Steele of Stanford University and Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas. The group member may then experience anxiety over being judged, and perform the task more poorly, conforming to the stereotype. Research done in the late 1990s by academians Steven J. Spencer, Steele, and Diane M. Quinn showed that when women learn that a math test produces gender differences, they underperform men, but when they learn that a math test does not produce gender differences, they perform equal to men.
One factor that influences stereotype threat is the intensity of contextual cues. Research by Diane M. Bergeron, Caryn J. Block, and Alan Echtenkamp of Columbia University demonstrated that women underperform men on a work task when their predecessor is described as a man with stereotypically male characteristics, but perform equal to men when their predecessor is described as a woman with female traits. Organizations should consider the language they use when posting job openings, writing job descriptions, and describing eligibility for promotions and awards to ensure the requirements are evidence-based.
Relatable female role models can cultivate a sense of belonging and demonstrate first-hand that female leaders are effective. Organizations should consider encouraging informal mentoring partnerships, and/or building a formal mentorship program, and encouraging participation in professional associations and organizational committees.
Organizations can also educate leaders and employees about unconscious biases and increase the diversity of candidate pools. Reducing the potential for stereotype threat means organizations can increase the likelihood of equal opportunity and representation, thus benefitting from unique perspectives.
This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.