Women’s careers: Breaking the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies

Women’s careers: Breaking the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies

Article co-written with Raluca Delaume. She holds a PhD in applied behavioural economics and has 20 years’ experience in various roles with multinational companies. Her research interests include application of cognitive psychology to business decisions and education.   

One’s reputation, whether false or true, cannot be hammered, hammered, hammered into one’s head without doing something to one’s character —Gordon Allport (American psychologist, one of the founding figures of personality psychology)

Organizations around the world spend billions of dollars annually to combat bias and inequality in the workplace. According to a McKenzie study, diversity training is a 10 billion-per-year industry, and 65% of organizations in the US and 60% of organizations in the UK offer diversity training. Drawing on a large body of research and the concept of “stereotype threat”, we show how career development programs for women often backfire and make gender stereotypes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We offer evidence-based practical solutions to mitigate the potential negative effects of these programs and empower women to fulfill their potential.

The ubiquitous stereotype threat

If you’re new to the workforce, did you worry that your colleagues would stereotype you as a “typical millennial” when you first started work? If you’ve been working for decades, have you experienced ageism? Research shows that when people worry about being the target of a negative stereotype, there’s an increased likelihood that they will underperform within the stereotyped domain. Even when there’s no evidence of being treated differently, having this stereotype in mind will lead the individual to become more aware of it. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat.

Many women in leadership positions experience gender stereotype threat. The paradox is that stereotype threat can be enforced by well-intentioned development programs to help women’s careers, but this then “reminds” them about gender stereotypes that they might not have otherwise personally experienced or believed. Thus, stereotypes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can negatively impact women’s performance, even in the absence of different treatment. This is true whether or not people actually believe in the stereotype: research shows that mere awareness is enough to activate stereotype threat.

How does stereotype threat work?

There are several explanations of why stereotype threat impedes performance. Cognitive resources are temporarily absorbed by intrusive thoughts, leading individuals to underperform despite significant knowledge and ability. Suppressing these negative thoughts will use up the working memory needed to perform well. These efforts tax cognitive resources and eventually impair performance. Other studies found increased physiological stress responseincreased blood pressure and cardiac output for individuals under stereotype threat. While moderate stress can be a booster, it can impair performance for cognitively demanding tasks and lead people to perform below their ability.

Stereotype threat is pervasive: an individual doesn’t have to agree with the stereotype or even be a member of a stigmatized minority group for the stereotype threat to be activated. For instance, one study asked accomplished white male students at Stanford University and at the University of Texas to take a difficult math test. The researchers emphasized the stereotype of Asian mathematical superiority to the experimental group, who eventually performed worse than the control group. These students were not conditioned by societal stereotypes to doubt their intellectual abilities. If they could experience threat and see their performance declining, then anyone who can be plausibly targeted by a stereotype can feel it.

However, this experiment also showed that stereotype threat can be mitigated, so it’s possible to redirect it to achieve positive outcomes. This is called a stereotype boost. For example, research found that Asian American female students performed better on a math test when they were primed with their ethnic identity than when they were primed with their gender identity. In that case, the cultural norm for Asian Americans to excel at math rendered the gender stereotype less influential.

Do gender diversity programs really work?

Corporations around the world attempt to resolve gender inequality by offering women a variety of professional development programs to boost their careers. Over the past decades, gender diversity training has developed into a multi-billion industry. Despite such significant investment, diversity goals at management levels are far from being achieved in proportion to employment levels.

These findings are no surprise for social psychologists. They question the effectiveness of such programs and the untested assumptions underlying interventions to change social behaviour. The success of these programs is often unreliably measured based on participant feedback. However, testimonials can be misleading, and participants inevitably make inferences (facilitator was nice, everyone seemed to like it, interesting discussions, so it was a good program). But are these programs really effective? These courses are well-meant, based on common sense, undoubtedly needed, but increasingly academics question their true effect, noting that these trainings are sustained by anecdotal accounts. Other research notes that diversity training is developed by self-professed experts who rarely have formal training or the background to evaluate the effects of these programs.

Good news from research

Using experimental research on stereotype threat, we propose solutions that can improve career development programs for women. Stereotype threat is the common explanation for women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields and leadership positions. The good news is that these fields could perform experimental research, based on randomized controlled trials, and develop strategies to help women cope with gender identity threats. This research is more convenient and ethical to conduct, and explores ways to activate or inhibit stereotype threats. We suggest that these findings are transferable to women’s career development programs.

Research shows that when individuals are chronically exposed to stereotyped threatening situations, it leads to disidentification and ultimately attrition from the respective domain. The most widely studied academic performance outcome for women under stereotype threat is math test performance. We build on research on women’s career progression in STEM fields because it offers tested and true solutions to overcome stereotype threat, whereas the solutions proposed for women in leadership positions have been rarely tested in empirical settings.

A seminal study demonstrated that knowledge of math gender stereotypes and evidence of the effects of stereotype threat on math performance emerge as early as kindergarten. However, research on gender representation in STEM shows that the stereotype threat is not a fatality and some individuals are immune to this threat. What makes some people more vulnerable to stereotype threat than others?

Several studies explored the role of identities in general and gender identity in particular as a factor of girls’ and women’s performance under stereotype threat. Each of us is a unique combination of various social identities (e.g., gender, race, religion, nationality, career, etc.) and a social identity that is central in one context might be meaningless in a different context. When identities are perceived to be compatible with one another, each one may provide a sense of connection and belonging. However, conflicting identities may raise self-doubts about one’s belonging and potential for success in domains where identities clash.

What individuals can learn from the findings of experimental research

1)  Role separation. This means that individuals should attempt to make a clear distinction in their minds between their identity as a member of the stereotyped group (e.g. women) and their professional identity, while simultaneously retaining both as valued aspects of themselves. Role separation can act as a buffer, preventing negative experiences in one role interfering with those of another role. In contrast, when roles are not separated, there is less flexibility for the individual in negotiating role-associated tasks. Moreover, constant multitasking between the gender norms and performance in the stereotyped domain can be exhausting.

2) Expect success. According to the Expectancy-Value Theory, individuals choose, persist, and succeed in educational/occupational domains to the extent they believe that they will do well in the field (expectancies) and the subjective value associated with the field (value perceptions). This theory highlights the importance of social reference groups (family, managers, peers) that provide individuals with performance feedback and motivation which are expected to influence career aspirations. Research shows that women’s motivation and identification with science can be boosted by expectancies coming from close others (e.g., a mother’s beliefs about her daughter’s math ability or broader socio-cultural norms). Similarly, female professionals should surround themselves with people who believe in their professional abilities and disengage from those promoting negative feelings about their professional identity (e.g. guilt for their career engagement and supposed neglect of family life).

3) Self-affirmation strategies. The threat to self-integrity is the root of stereotype threat, as it implies one’s potential inferiority or lack of competence. Therefore,several scholars tackled this withself-affirmation strategies. In onestudy, researchers demonstrated that writing about one’s most important values reduced stress and improved the performance of stereotype-threatened individuals. This strategy is effective as it directly addresses the need to maintain integrity. The issue is that performance gets exaggerated attention and failure gets exaggerated concern when they are linked to self-integrity. Therefore, getting a self-boost is a promising avenue, especially for women who are sensitive to gender stereotypes. In corporate settings, this self-boost can be about actively remembering past successes and professional strengths recognized by others, including success in areas related to non-professional identities.

How organizations can improve career training for women

1)  Focus attention on external attributions versus internal attributions. This bias manifests as the spontaneous attribution of women’s setbacks to internal causes (e.g., ability) and men’s setbacks to external causes (e.g., unfortunate circumstances), as well as the attribution of women’s successes to external causes and men’s successes to internal causes. A study found that teaching women about attribution bias and how to make fewer internal attributions and more external attributions when facing setbacks could increase their sense of belonging to STEM and render them more resilient. Similarly, female professionals would gain by being taught to be less critical about themselves and their abilities when facing difficulties in their careers and to focus on the big picture.

2) Rework the context. A study showed that when women were prompted to think about characteristics that both men and women shared prior to taking a difficult math exam, their performance increased significantly relative to the control group in which participants were not asked to do anything before the math test. They explored students’ social belonging to the academic context. Thus, first-year college students received testimonials that all students worry about belonging in college, equipping them with a positive narrative when facing a negative experience. A common thread in these interventions was that researchers aimed to have a unified group and avoid singling out the stereotyped group. In corporate settings, training and coaching sessions should focus on emphasizing similarities, rather than emphasizing gendered attributes that differentiate male and female professionals. In addition, organizations should expend more effort to integrate women and women’s networks in the formal and informal organizational networks.

3) Consider role models. Exposure to adequate role models can be an effective strategy to combat stereotype threat. An experiment showed that exposing women to highly successful female role models empowered them in a leadership task. Important note: this experiment did not lead participants to compare themselves to the role model, but subtly primed the participants to feel empowered. Moreover, if a role model’s achievements seem unattainable, it may result in a negative social comparison and discouragement. Companies should expose women to role models whose success is outstanding but attainable for the individuals who need inspiration and wish to excel.

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