Stereotypes: Holding us back and holding on


Doris and I have hosted a virtual Lean In group since 2013, 2 years now. We have blogged about what we discuss, read, or watch (in Lean In, Lean Out, or Lie Down for example) in the resources our group shares and discusses each month. was created by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, to provide information, resources, and support for working women and men to look at gender inequality issues at work as outlined in her book, Lean In. Sandberg encouraged the formation of Lean In Circles – groups of women coming together to support each other, review Lean In videos and use the discussion guides, and to act to create a more level playing field for women in the workplace.

Although there are now Lean In Circles around the world sponsored by business, organizations, governments, and people like Doris and I, the new study by and McKinsey, a reputable research company, was not encouraging. Women in the Workplace 2015 is the compilation of survey data from 118 companies and 30,000 employees. As the report states in a sure to be oft repeated statistic:

Female leadership is an imperative for organizations that want to perform at the highest levels. Yet based on the slow rate of progress over the last three years, it will take twenty-five years to reach gender parity at the senior-VP level and more than one hundred years in the C-suite.

That is a long time, especially for those of us, like me, who attended “consciousness raising” groups in the early days of the feminist movement. Like the Lean In Circles of today, women came together to support each other, discuss gender inequality, and act to change that. It is depressing to me that although we have come a “long way baby”, we still have so far to go.

What contributes to this slow growth towards gender equality, and what can we do about it?

At the crux of the matter, as highlighted in this report and elsewhere, are the stereotypes we cling to. Women are expected by society to be nice, compliant, women-in-the-workplacefeminine. As Sandberg points out in her book, Lean In, girls are “bossy” if they exhibit the same traits that result in boys being called “leaders”. Media also perpetrate gender stereotypes. In this article from the Huffington Post from May 15, 2014, Gender Roles in Media, the author Allison Lantagne states:

Even on young children, gender roles are being pushed through advertisements. My search for American advertisements with girls playing with action figures and boys using easy-bake ovens was fruitless, and even when I moved to a gender neutral product, sidewalk chalk, the advertisement was sending different messages towards boys versus girls. The girls were all coloring on the sidewalk, as the one young boy rapped, ending in a short dance routine where it was clear that the only male in the advertisement was the main character. Are consumers of sidewalk chalk actively trying to send this message of submission to their 9-year-old girls? Likely not, but the media is sending them the message without being stopped. However, Tide, a Proctor and Gamble laundry detergent, has taken its advertisement in a better direction, recently showing a clip where the leading male actor proudly proclaims “I’m a stay-at-home dad,” and later goes on to braid his daughter’s hair. By showing a man playing out typically “feminine” behaviors, Tide is promoting a more equal society.

Sheryl Sandberg gives out awards, the Glass Lion, for gender-stereotype busting commercials from around the globe. Buzz Feed News highlighted the winners, which includes one commercial our Lean In Circle discussed: Run Like A Girl by the menstruation pad and feminine hygiene company Always. There are ads from Lebanon, England, India (the touch the pickle campaign – it isn’t what you think!), and other countries.

Stereotypes are still alive and well in various professions. Just this week, Jennifer Lawrence posted on Lenny Letter, Lina Dunham and Jenni Konner’s blog site about the pay gap between men and women in Hollywood. She cites the starlet stereotype she didn’t want to portray when negotiating her salary:

But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.”

Doris’s husband Bentley pointed out this article in the New York Times this weekend, What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech, which discusses how the environment of a start up, college computer engineering department, or coding courses turn women off.

For the past six years, Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, has been studying why girls in high school are significantly less likely than boys to sign up for a class in computer science, take the Advanced Placement exam in that subject, or express interest in computer science as a career, and why female college students are four times less likely than men to major in computer science or engineering, even though they test extremely well in math.

The male dominated decorating of rooms and the way “geeks” talk about coding are factors in why women don’t enter into the field. Changing the posters and room colors, colleagues’ clothes from T shirts with slogans to ones with solid colors, and emphasizing hanging out with friends as opposed to just coding alone for days influenced women to sign up for coding and computer courses. Women wanted to be able to “fit in”, and by making the environment more generic, they saw themselves doing just that. In this case, the geek stereotype and environment was inhibiting women from entering the field.

The Women and Work 2015 report suggests steps organizations and businesses can take to change the culture of the workplace and break down stereotypes. This Wall Street Journal article contains an interactive version of the report and a good summary of the findings. The report surfaces the differences in how men and women view gender inequality, and the opportunities women have to advance their career. More men are still advancing on track into C-suite leadership positions than women do. Women have less opportunities, more stress, less mentorships, and are not as adept at promoting themselves. Sandberg summarizes the report’s findings in this short video:

The report’s format is easy to read with helpful visuals illustrating the data analysis and conclusions. Reading the report and the articles cited in this blog renewed my resolve to examine the stereotypes I hold onto, and let them go. Perhaps if we all did this, it would hasten the timetable cited by the report by at least 50 years for C-suite gender equity. I’m willing to work on it.

What are the stereotypes you still hold onto? How do they influence how you think and behave? Do they hold you and/or your workplace back? What changes can you make to dispel them? Let’s do this together and reset the clock!

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