Women: Are You One of These Stereotypes at Work?

Last Updated Aug 6, 2010 7:14 PM EDT

Stereotypes bedevil the hiring process and they torment ambitious professionals in their careers. But they're impossible to eradicate. Why? Because stereotypes are energy-saving devices, mental shortcuts that allow us to extrapolate a great deal from a single detail. Like cliches, they wouldn't persist if there weren't some truth in them. But in professional development, stereotypes are dangerous because they box you in and limit what people think you can do. Percy Barnevik, the esteemed CEO of ABB, once maintained that companies use only 5 to 10 percent of their employees' capacity. Stereotyping people is one way we obscure the rest.

Stereotypes are infuriating because they're insidious, we often don't even see them developing and they're based on biases and beliefs we have no control over. When we feel them being applied to ourselves, we get mad -- but it's smarter to learn how to recognize them and how not get sucked into confirming them.

Research repeatedly shows that stereotypes are a major cause of the gender gap -- the failure of women to be paid and promoted at a rate equal to men. So what are the stereotypes that women's careers suffer from? (I'll ask the same question about men and stereotypes in my next post.)

The Geisha: When you start out in your career, you're young, pretty and eager to please. But being too charming can make others think that's all you bring to the table. I once worked with a VP of marketing who spoke several languages, had worked in three different countries and was outstandingly capable. How did her boss evaluate her? "The great thing about Frances," he said, "is that she's so charming." When the company made their biggest (and worst) marketing decision, she wasn't in the meeting. You don't need charm to make strategic decisions.

The Invisible Woman: You don't want to be trivialized as charming, so you keep your head down and just work like crazy. I did this in the early stages of my career. I usually had two jobs (one salary) and was always willing to take on extra. For years, this meant annual promotions. But as I reached the top of the ladder, no one really knew everything I did -- and the final promotion went to one of the protégés I'd recruited. (Another job I wasn't paid for.) Everyone was very surprised when I left.

The Bitch: If you're not a pretty geisha or invisible, one day you'll be called a bitch. This is what happened to Pamela Matthews, a banker. "Things get dicey when you reach the more senior levels," she says. "If you're tough with juniors, or in meetings, you're a bitch. But you have respect. You have no friends at work and everyone talks behind your back, but you have respect." The problem, of course, is you get very lonely, and being isolated at work is risky.

The Guy: If you survive the first three stereotypes, you may finally become an honorary guy. The day my boss put his arm around my shoulder and said "Good ol' Margaret, she's one of the guys," I felt I'd finally made it. So many women tell me that the only way to succeed is to assimilate, not just in personal style -- the helmet hair and dark suit -- but in language, work styles and mindset. The more of a guy you are, the more comfortable men are around you, and you feel accepted. The problem is that this successful executive isn't you.

As I've studied women's careers over the last 20 years, I've seen these four stereotypes everywhere. I think they're inescapable: some lucky women escape a few of them but I don't think I've yet met anyone who dodged them all. You can't avoid this but you can mitigate the damage:
  1. Be aware you're being stereotyped and recognize that this isn't your fault. The mind likes short cuts -- but they miss out a lot.
  2. Don't believe in the stereotype or do anything that might reinforce it. This is more tempting than you might imagine; everyone tends to respond to the image of themselves they see others respond to. When women are perceived as bitches, it can make them even tougher and more alone; when women are treated as geishas, it's hard not to become more charming.
  3. Cleave to the colleagues and friends who see the whole you. We all need people to remind us of the best that we can be.
What other stereotypes do you see that afflict women's careers?
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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