Gender SELF-Stereotyping

We usually think of stereotyping as when somebody pigeonholes and diminishes another person based on the latter’s gender, race, accent, or appearance. According to my Harvard Business School colleague Katherine Coffman, it is all that and more.

Working with other researchers, Katherine has documented the damage done by self-stereotyping, the way that social attitudes and norms can make talented and high-performing women doubt their own worth.

In one of their studies, subjects—women and men—were give a series of simple trivia quizzes. The topics ranged from the Kardashians and Disney movies to video-games and math. The goal wasn’t seeing who did better, though. Instead, it was to see if confidence varied by gender and the nature of the topic.

When the quizzes were over, the experimenters asked subjects to estimate how many answers they got right. When the topic was something where men are commonly thought to have an advantage (like math), women tended to be significantly less confident than men—and here’s the kicker—even when they had performed equally well!

This is disheartening news. It’s bad enough when others express doubts about our abilities. It’s even worse when that voice comes from within. Confidence that you can do the job is essential to advancement.

In a recent HBS Working Knowledge article, Katherine stated, “Our beliefs about ourselves are important in shaping all kinds of important decisions.” And that includes choosing a career path. Women now earn almost 60 percent of advanced degrees granted in the United States, but only constitute only 26 percent of workers in computer and math jobs.

This lack of appropriate confidence costs individuals in regard to their own professional success and fulfillment. It also costs organizations who could benefit from their talents and ideas. Unfortunately, social beliefs are embedded early and re-enforced throughout one’s lifetime. And they’re not easily dislodged.

In a follow-up study, Katherine and her colleagues had subjects complete two rounds of quizzes. After the first one, people were then given feedback telling them they had performed better than they had thought. Nevertheless, their lack of confidence stayed locked in. Much more extensive intervention is necessary to free people from the burden of self-doubt.

There is a glimmer of hope, though, in the work that Katherine and her team has done. Their data emphasizes averages, understandably, as they’re investigating broad social phenomena. The general tendency of women to be less confident about certain knowledge and skills must be addressed, for everyone’s sake.

But some women who took part in the experiments had above average confidence in their performance—and some were well above average. How do they differ from lower confidence women? Is it their nature, upbringing, or education—or a particular combination of those factors? The answers could help boost many other women’s self-assurance.

For now stereotyping and self-stereotyping are still with us, as Katherine and her colleagues have demonstrated. I hope their work help hastens the day when it’s a thing of the past. This isn’t my field, but I’m sure such research is well underway and effective programs are already in place.

In fact, along with all my Harvard Business School colleagues, I was involved in a successful initiative several years ago. The goal was making sure that all of our students have full opportunity to contribute to class discussions. (Participation typically counts for 50 percent of one’s grade in a course—and we grade on a scale.) There was extensive training for students, as well, both men and women.

The results have been impressive, including a big uptick in the percentage of women earning academic honors. But there’s certainly more to be done. For a window on that, check out another Working Knowledge link (that I received moments ago). It presents on-going research projects at HBS on gender policies and issues.

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