Senior Lecturer, Head of Department of Business,
Management & Law, University of Technology
In a world laden with stereotypes, metaphors, images, symbols and so many implicit and explicit ways of understanding culture, society and people, gender stereotypes are perhaps the most negative, harmful and derogatory towards women. Gender stereotypes are assumptions about the behaviour and attributes that are related to the male and female sexes which elucidate the behaviour typically expected from them. Stereotyping starts early in our lives and often remains ingrained in our cognitive processes and as adults leads us to making ill-informed judgements about people. Certain prevalent stereotypes regarding women are that they have poor negotiation skills, often lack self-confidence, do not want to take on challenging positions or don’t put in the essential hours at work because they consider family more important than their careers. These stereotypes can be persistent and are the cause of prejudice, bias, and discrimination which can aggravate hostility and negative mindsets towards women especially in the workplace, even though they have been proven completely wrong. Such negative stereotypical assumptions against women is a factor responsible for this universal global question ‘Why are there so few women in top management positions?’ as it is well known that worldwide women comprise a meagre number of top management and leadership positions and Mauritius is no exception to this trend.
Why stereotype? Firstly, in the modern-day workplace filled with complexities and rapid change it becomes convenient to categorise people into opportune slots such that crucial decisions about their careers are made easily with ease of memory and quick information processing. Consequently, this convenient categorizing of people by decision-makers who are mostly male into convenient slots often leads jobs to be sex-typed and classified as ‘men’s or ‘women’s jobs’. These male decision-makers associate themselves with masculine traits such as being assertive, competitive, independent, daring, having a strong personality, being forceful, and dominant. They resultantly have expectations and beliefs that such male traits are most suited to top leadership positions such as CEO functions.
Moreover, women’s traits such as compassion, sensitivity, being nurturing, supportive and caring are attributes that are conventionally considered not suited to leadership roles. Though in contemporary times these assumptions are being called into question, whereby women’s qualities as compared to men wherein ‘women take care’ and ‘men take charge’ is being considered as the new hallmark of leadership. In fact, the soft skills possessed by women, are increasingly needed in the changing modern-day workplace. It is also important to understand that the main factors responsible for gender bias due to stereotyping are mainly attributable to organizational structures, embedded company practices, and communication styles that place men and women differently thus leading them to having a different set of experiences.
Therefore, the battle is far from over as women globally have been struggling since decades for equal pay, equal work and equal recognition but the belief that efficient organizational leaders are male and macho still persists. There is yet an arduous journey ahead for gender stereotypes to be wrecked and women to be accepted for their worth in terms of the repository of skills, knowledge and experience that they possess and the consequent human capital that they bring to the job and the workplace. The stereotype ‘think manager think male’ puts immense pressure on those few women who have managed to reach top positions. They subsequently feel compelled to manage like a man to gain acceptance in the workplace. As a result, facing a dual conflicting challenge wherein they are called upon to be assertive, confident, and dominant while at the same time not being perceived as being too authoritative, condescending, or controlling. Furthermore, women are required to fit in by adopting prevailing leadership styles that restrain their ability to use inherent feminine traits of team spirit, dialogue and humility that increases workplace creativity, idea sharing and nurtures employee commitment and mutuality. Those few women who manage to shatter the ‘glass ceiling’ and reach top positions are expected to work twice as hard to prove themselves and most probably only get half the recognition. Men are also good at networking outside office hours and mentoring and thereby have more information sharing among themselves about career progression opportunities. Very often women are not part of such networks and do not readily get mentoring opportunities, thus may have little awareness of how to improve their career prospects and the job openings available to them in the job market.
Another harmful aspect is ‘Tokenism’ where companies have policies that lead to having more women in top positions but that do not really have a positive impact on the work-place culture with tenacious stereotyping still being the norm. Such women may feel alienated with must more stress to succeed as they are perceived as belonging to ‘special group’ that needs advancement just because of their gender. Therefore, it is important to create genuine inclusive and diverse workplaces and have male decision makers that can sponsor and advocate the cause of gender diversity.
If these stereotypes are removed from the workplace, there could be a new drift towards changing the expected masculine benchmark for leadership behaviour and as a result build a stronger inclination for feminine characteristics and female leadership which is the current need of the hour in modern day workplaces. ‘Let’s open the dialogue!’