Fighting a battle that women don’t even know they’re fighting, an article by Woman Of Green contributor, Birute Regine.
In the middle of the meeting on a controversial financial proposal, “Jane” has a flash of insight into a problem. She looks at the men and women around the table as she enthusiastically elaborates on what she believes to be an important point that can bridge the conversation.
After she finishes speaking, she waits to hear responses to her comments. Crickets. No one responds. No one picks up on the idea. It was as if they didn’t even hear what she had said.
Jane feels confused and frustrated. She thought she was bringing a lot to the table, but then why wasn’t she getting any reinforcement? Maybe her observation wasn’t really as worthwhile a contribution as she thought? Maybe she just doesn’t have the leadership abilities needed?
Fifteen minutes later a male version of what Jane said, slightly reworded, is heard loud and clear. People think his idea is “brilliant!”
I bring up this vignette at many of my speaking engagements. It always receives many nods from the women in the audience: “Yeah, I’ve been there.” So what is going on?
One way to explain it is “gender schemas.”
In her book Why so Slow? The Advancement of Women, Virginia Valian, professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Hunter College, New York, explored why women’s advancement has crept at such a snail’s pace. Along the way she uncovered the world of what she called gender schemas: culturally bound assumptions about men and women that are unconscious.
One assumption is that women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. It’s the opposite for men. So right from the start women are not perceived as leaders. If a woman is successful it’s because she’s a hard worker (recent headline: “How BofA’s Sallie Krawcheck Outworked Her Peers”), or was lucky; if she fails it’s because she’s incompetent. If a male succeeds, it’s because he’s competent; if he fails it’s because of bad luck or a scandal (HP’s Mark Hurd comes to mind).
Consequently, cultural biases consistently overrate men and underratewomen. Self-assessment studies show that men and women do the same to themselves. Women tend to evaluate themselves two points lower than reality, while men will evaluate themselves two points higher.
Assumed incompetence puts women on the defensive and their struggle to prove themselves keeps them on a never-ending treadmill. So if you as a woman have felt held to a higher standard, it’s not your imagination, you have been. It’s the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers syndrome: Ginger has to do everything Fred does, except in high heels and backwards.
It’s not just men assuming women are incompetent; women also fall prey to assuming incompetence in women. A woman may feel that she’s competent but she won’t assume that of other women. In one global experiment called the “Goldberg paradigm,” researchers asked men and women in one group to evaluate a particular article or speech supposedly written by a man. Then they asked a similar group to judge the same material, this time supposedly authored by a woman. In countries all over the world, participants rated the very same words higher coming from a man than from a woman.
The fact that women often assume other women are incompetent may, in part, explain why women traditionally haven’t been so great at helping each other up the ladder. That’s changing however, with the plethora of organizations and initiatives dedicated to women supporting women. A revolution is underway; a level of collaboration among women as we have never seen before.
When I talk with younger women, some say they don’t experience this assumption. And may they never! It’s a pretty level playing field when entering the work force. After all, 46% of employees in Fortune 500 are women.
But the higher you climb, the wider the gap. Women make up only 15% of board seats, 14% of executive officers and a paltry 2% of CEOs. Another way of saying it: men hold 98% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. I don’t think we can say assumed incompetence is no longer a battle ground for women.
Irven DeVore, a former professor of anthropology at Harvard University, once said to me: “We will have gender equality when half of Fortune 500 CEOs are mediocre women leaders.” I guess we have a long way to go, Irv!
Some women use the negative gender schemas against them to their advantage. These women play along as if they don’t know what’s going on, when in reality they are five steps ahead of the guys. As Mae West put it, “Brains are an asset, if you hide them.”
Being under-estimated can work to women’s advantage when she is covertly outsmarting him, but that’s a short-term benefit. In the end, feigning ignorance only helps perpetuate a misperception. As one of my favorite leaders, Linda Rusch, former VP of nursing in Hunderton Medical, told me, “What you permit, you promote.”
So let’s be conscious of this unconscious assumption. If your comments are overlooked, don’t assume you have nothing to contribute or are not a leader. Rather assume an unconscious assumption has kicked in. If you agree with what a woman might be offering to the discussion, don’t tell her at the water cooler. Speak up and stand beside her and giving her credit. If someone takes your idea and claims it as their own, do as one woman scientist who did research on cancer told me. Tell that person, “Thanks, I’m so glad you love my idea!”
Being conscious of gender schemas can give woman an advantage: heightened awareness can pull us out of the mire.
Birute Regine, Ed.D., a developmental psychologist, works as an executive coach, speaker and author. She previously co-authored the critically acclaimed The Soul at Work: Embracing Complexity Science For Business Success. Her new book, Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World captures a powerful time of transition in our society, led primarily by women. View her website www.ironbutterflies.com and follow her on Twitter @ironbutterflies.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com