Gender Stereotypes- Not Just A Woman’s Issue

Not enough women in senior leadership roles is often blamed on gender stereotyping.

Gender stereotypes are widely shared views on what is considered appropriate and effective behavior for men and women.

To “fit in” and be socially accepted, men are told explicitly and implicitly to be:

  • Primary breadwinners
  • Emotionally and physically tough
  • Competitive
  • Decisive
  • Assertive

Men know they need to avoid all things feminine or be labeled a “wimp” or a “sissy.”

Masculine stereotypical behavior fits nicely with our current “macho” leadership model. Senior leaders are expected to be tough, competitive, decisive and assertive.

If men conform to their gender stereotype they are clearly good leadership material.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to be:

  • Secondary breadwinners
  • Emotionally fragile
  • Collaborative
  • Likable
  • Receptive

Women have to tone down their assertive behavior or be labeled a “bully broad” or “dragon lady,” (or much worse names).

Female stereotypes clearly don’t fit with the “macho” model of leadership. They are one factor that hinder women who want to lead.

If we meet expectations about how we are supposed to behave as women, we are seen as unsuitable leadership material.

If we conform to stereotypical leadership behaviors, we are seen as “unfeminine” and unlikeable.

It’s a tough line to walk.

Not just a woman’s burden

In our efforts to overcome gender bias and promote more women leaders,  we’ve focused on gender stereotyping as a woman’s burden.

In reality, however, men also suffer its unwanted consequences.

Many men don’t want the pressure of being the primary breadwinner and suffer under the psychological pressure of this expectation (although, of course, it would be “unmanly” to admit this).

Many men strive to live up to masculine norms and prioritize career advancement over relationships with their  family, spouse and friends. This can leave them with poor work/life balance and no-where to turn in times of stress.

Asking for help is generally seen as a weakness in men because they are expected to be tough, decisive and in control. This limits mens ability to acknowledge and seek help for problems such as depression, anxiety and illness.

In reality, therefore, gender stereotypes burden both men and women.


Accelerating Change

If we want to see women equally represented at the top of organizations we need to stop positioning gender as a woman’s issue.

Instead, we need to find ways to help women and men work together as allies to change the behavioral norms that hinder both sexes.

In their report, Engaging Men In Gender Initiatives, Catalyst found that “the higher men’s awareness of gender bias, the more likely they are to feel that it was important to achieve gender equality.”

In other words, if men experience gender norms as a hinderance or barrier in their own lives, they are more likely to understand the problems they cause for women operating within a male leadership structure.

Catalyst recommends that we “help men recognize the personal costs they suffer due to gender bias…People are more likely to judge a situation as unfair if they are personally disadvantaged by it…When men recognize that gender disparities cost men – not just women – they will be more motivated to correct them.”

If we look at a potential cost/benefit analysis of gender bias and gender equity for men, it might look something like this:

Cost to men of gender inequity

Benefits to men of gender equality

Pressure to bear the primary financial responsibility for one’s household

Freedom to share financial responsibilities with one’s spouse

More distant relationships with spouse or partner

More rewarding and intimate relationships with spouse or partner

More distant relationships with children

Freedom to parent more substantively; more rewarding relationships with children

Pressure to acquire status and compete with men

Freedom to define oneself according to one’s own values rather than traditional gender norms

Poor psychological and physical well-being

Better psychological and physical health

Table from Catalyst report: Engaging Men In Gender Initiatives

If we want to accelerate change for both women and men, it’s time to look at the issue of gender stereotypes holistically, and not just from a woman’s perspective.

Before men can support women breaking female stereotypes and achieving positions of power, they must first be convinced there is something wrong with the status quo for both sexes.

What do you think?


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