I recently heard from a young man who works in a start-up. He enthusiastically described the company’s free-form, conversational, and informal culture. However, despite everything that senior management was doing to achieve this creative atmosphere, he could see that they had blind spots that were preventing them from reaching their highest performance. And it revolved around their stereotypical attitudes about gender. Here is the story my young friend shared with me:
“There’s one person I work with, named Stella, who is far and away the highest-performing person I’ve yet seen at this company. There is not a moment of her time not being used to its fullest extent – forming and driving strategy, mitigating problems, evaluating current state and re-adjusting her direction as needed – it’s amazing. I once saw her wearing her headset conducting a conference call while trying on various types of shoes for her upcoming wedding. That she has been able to successfully juggle the million different things she’s been dealing with is incredibly impressive. She is certainly doing far more work than any one person should be doing, but at a company of this size, everyone is also being taxed to maximum.
Recently, she was given ownership of the company’s most valuable project and our senior management told her it needed to be ‘launched’ within 5 months. This created a lot of pressure and Stella was as stressed as I’ve ever seen her, completely frazzled by the end of the day. We talked and she vented a bit about how wild it was. Senior management didn’t provide any clear set of tasks to be accomplished or a clear tracking system, so she’s been defining all that and moving forward with her plan, just as they’d asked her to do. But, and here’s the thing, the higher ups (Don and Gabe) keep coming by to tell her to focus on this or that, ‘backseat managing’ essentially, giving her directives that contradict her plan, and overall not trusting her to run this herself.
One comment she made that stuck with me was, “You know, if I was Don or Gabe putting this plan into action, people would be asking me how they could help, but when it has been handed to a woman they are questioning every decision.”
Our senior management are assuming they know best, despite the fact they gave her the task because they had no plan at all! It makes it tough to be loyal when they are being so blind.”
My young friend is right- none of us like to see inequities. It is a demotivator. Stella is right too. The senior managers don’t have the same confidence in a woman that they would have in a man. Unfortunately, they have a blind spot regarding the capability of women leaders. We have all been programmed from a young age to believe that men are the only ones that have ‘what it takes’ and this stereotypical subconscious bias is hard to overcome.
These gendered beliefs come from socialization that starts at birth and is then programmed into the software of our subconscious. Children are influenced by parents, teachers, media, religion and peers starting as young as three months.
For example, boys are taught to be curious, active and constantly testing boundaries. They are encouraged to venture away from their mothers and skin their knees. Meanwhile girls are raised to sit prettily by their mothers, listening politely and being demure. The Journal of Paediatric Psychology found that parents are “four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful” after either had experienced a trip to the emergency room for a minor injury. It is no wonder that girls grow up to be more risk aware.
Even parents who want to raise their children without gender bias are prone. Research by John and Sandra Condry at Cornell found that sex differences were in the eye of the beholder. When babies reacted to a jack in the box, observers described those they believed to be boys as angry while those they believed to be girls were described as fearful.
Author Lise Eliot in Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps, cites research which shows how parents describe their babies with the stereotypical attributes of their sex. Baby boys were labelled as active and baby girls were described as cuddly when outside observers saw no difference.
Its not just our parenting- it is also our media. Consider that the Sesame Street characters Bert, Ernie and Cookie Monster are all male except for Miss Piggy who is bossy, jealous and vain- not exactly a good role model for young girls. It also sends a less than positive message on female gendered behaviour to all children.
Cultural expectations around gender are also evident in school where research shows that teachers call more on boys. In fact, decades of studies by Sadker and Zittleman released in 2015 shows that teachers spend up to 2/3 of their time talking to male students encouraging them to seek deeper answers while they reward girls for keeping quiet.
In religion those at the top of the hierarchy are male so both boys and girls are taught to pray to an almighty male. This also makes it hard to ‘see one, be one’ for young girls.
To be accepted into a peer group, boys are encouraged to play sports and talk about cars while girls are encouraged to look good and please men.
Each of us has been socialized in this way so it is not a surprise that for women like Stella, both men and women will doubt a woman at the top. To overcome these blind spots, we have to become aware and acknowledge that each of us has them. In other words, to become conscious of our bias to make a conscious effort to change. Only then will we see the light and our companies will reap the rewards that come from having loyal and motivated employees.