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stereotype threat

The belief that certain activities are “appropriate” for women and certain careers are not is the result of stereotype threat, pure and simple.

If a woman believes women are good at psychology but not computer science, she is more likely to major in psychology than computer science. If she believes women are good at personal relationships but not finance, she is more likely to take a job in human resources than the treasury department. And if she believes women are not good at negotiating but are good at administrative organization, she is more unlikely to volunteer for a major merger or acquisition and more likely to offer to organize a new filing system.

We recognize that the entire subject of gender-appropriate activities is a highly sensitive one.

Pointing out the gender segregation in college majors—85 percent of health service majors are women but only 19 percent of engineering majors are—and occupations—80 percent of social workers are women but only 15 percent of computer programmers are—can quickly be interpreted as a form of “blaming the victim.”

Pointing out gender segregation in careers can be taken as an attempt to hold women responsible for having lower status and lower-paying jobs than do men.

We want to make clear that we don’t think some college majors are better than others, that some occupations are better than others, or that some career roles are better than others. There are multiple factors affecting women’s decisions with respect to all of these areas, and we have no interest in making judgments about anyone’s actual choices.

What we do have an interest in, however, is making you aware of the segregation by gender that pervades America’s college majors, occupations, and career responsibilities.

We believe that if you are sensitive to this segregation, you will be less likely to place limitations and restraints on your own work-related attitudes, choices, and behavior simply because you are a woman. We don’t want women to be more like men, but we do want women to believe and behave as though they can do anything in their careers that men can do—and do it just as well, if not better.

Forty percent of college-educated women and men would need to change their occupations to achieve gender parity across all United States occupations. This occupational gender segregation is most often attributed to “demand-side” influences, that is, employers’ decisions about who they will hire and who they will make feel welcome.

There is some evidence that “supply-side” factors also play a role. This means that women’s and men’s personal decisions about where (and at what) they want to work contribute to this segregation. Researchers from McGill University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania looked at the jobs comparably qualified woman and men applied for after having attended an elite, one-year international MBA program.

Their study focused on three factors influencing a person’s choice of a job: how the applicant values the specific rewards offered by the job, whether the applicant identifies with the job, and whether the applicant expects an application for that job will result in a job offer. The study examined how each of these factors affected women’s and men’s applications to work in the fields of finance, consulting, and general management.

The researchers found no differences in the monetary and other values women and men assigned to these jobs. Nevertheless, women were far less likely to apply for jobs in finance and consulting and far more likely to apply for general management positions than were men.

The researchers found this gender disparity in applications was due almost entirely to women not “identifying” with finance jobs because of the strong masculine stereotypes associated with them or with consulting jobs because of anticipated difficulties with “work–life balance.”

The researchers concluded that the low number of women in the fields of finance and consulting is largely the result of women’s “gender role socialization,” that is, the stereotypes they held about themselves and particular careers. They also concluded, however, that when a woman can overcome exceptionally high barriers to female participation early in her career, this may actually reduce her “gendered behavior” in subsequent stages of her career.

Gendered behavior is behavior that is shaped or caused by internalized gender stereotypes.

Take one well-documented phenomenon: men typically apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the job criteria, but women typically don’t apply until they feel they meet 100 percent of the criteria.

This is gendered behavior, pure and simple, and it is due in all likelihood to stereotype threat: women’s belief that they are just not as good at particular tasks as men and, therefore, their fear that if they are not fully qualified for the jobs for which they are applying, they are likely to fail.

This same fear too frequently causes some women to choose assignments and positions that involve less risk, lower visibility, fewer challenges, less responsibility and less external pressure than those chosen by their male colleagues.

If you are in a traditionally male work environment, there are lots of people and situations at work that will hold you back simply because you are a woman.

You are as talented, prepared, and capable as the men, so be your own best fan and avoid thinking negatively about yourself or what you are capable of.


This article is adapted with permission from Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris


Image source before quote added:  Pixabay