January 28, 2011

Can Female Leaders Be True to Themselves?

Gender differences can be used to either positive or negative effect. Women, in particular, are prone to being stereotyped according to differences – albeit usually not the ones that they would choose.

Partly this is because there are fewer women than men in management positions. According to research in social psychology, if a group’s representation falls below 20% in a given society, then it’s going to be subjected to stereotyping whether it likes it or not. For women, this may mean being typecast as a helper, nurturer or seductress – labels that may prevent them from defining their own differences.

In my recent research, I discovered that many women – particularly women in their fifties – try to avoid this dynamic by disappearing. They try to make themselves invisible. They wear clothes that disguise their bodies; they try to blend in with men by talking tough. That’s certainly one way to avoid negative stereotyping, but the problem is that it reduces women’s chances of being seen as a potential leader. She’s not promoting her real self and differences.

Another response to negative stereotyping is to collectively resist it – for example, by mounting a campaign that promotes the rights, opportunities and even the number of women in the workplace. But on day to day basis survival is often all women have time for, therefore making it impossible for them to organize themselves formally.

A third response that emerged in our research was that women play into stereotyping to personal advantage. Some women, for example, knowingly play the role of “nurturer” at work, but they do it with such wit and skill that they are able to benefit from it. The cost of such a strategy?

It furthers harmful stereotypes and continues to limit opportunities for other women to communicate their genuine personal differences.

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