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Stereotypes Still Expect Women to Close Business Deals Like a Man — And Get Home in Time to Cook Dinner

The reality that professional women face subtle biases in the business world has entered the public consciousness of late. A major Hollywood studio bought film rights to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A movie based on the gamble that the American public will come out in droves to see a fictionalized version of a powerful woman rising to be chief operating officer at Facebook.

Let’s take a closer look at a handful of silent stereotypes that continue to make a big impact on female success in the business world. As you’ll see, the expectation is that women are expected to be mini-men and yet lovely, charming women, as well. This is not news. It is the way it has been for decades as more and more women have entered male-dominated occupations and industries. But, there is another way that is emerging, a partnership approach.

Attention to the persistent stereotypes that create barriers to success for women in the workplace brings added value to all, not only women, but the company too.

Women are seen as less ambitious than men.

Surveys of predominantly male business leaders over the years have found a common perception of women as less ambitious. Yet, more recently, Bentley University’s PreparedU survey found that 95 percent of men and women believe the sexes are equally ambitious. In a survey by Bentley’s Center for Women and Business that asked both men and women of the millennial generation about their aspirations, the stereotype is challenged even further. Women have similar career aspirations and more. They do want rewarding careers that utilize their education and talents. They, and their male counterparts, also want strong families and a better world for those less fortunate. Sounds pretty ambitious to me!

Women are perceived as pushy when they say or do the same thing men do without censor.

Queen of comedy Tina Fey took on this notion in her popular book, Bossypants.

There was an assumption, wrote Fey, that she was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on television. But no one ever said it was mean when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of “going too far” in their political impressions.

“You see what I’m getting at here,” said Fey. “I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”

Fey advises using humor — and an unwavering inner toughness — when confronted with this attitude.

“Do your thing and don’t care if they like it,” she said.

The more that women gain the confidence to contribute in their own ways, the more everyone will get used to seeing and working with assertive women. Gender-based behavior lines are blurring as more millennial men and women who have been working together on more gender-neutral terms throughout their schooling years enter the workforce.

Women are judged more on their looks than men.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines around the world when she went without make-up on a trip to Bangladesh. One commentator said Clinton “just wants to be normal and do things like wear her hair in a scrunchie, party with her girlfriends and go out without a stitch of makeup.” England’s Daily Mail said Clinton looked tired and withdrawn. Despite her political prowess, Clinton’s hairstyle and wardrobe were also popular topics in the press.

She paid no attention. Speaking at the opening of “Women in the World” this year in New York City, Clinton said the double standard is alive and well in many respects. She advised professional women to focus on the task of making other people, predominantly men whom they will deal with, relate to them and listen to their ideas. Women must cultivate resilience, she said. During a talk in Boston earlier this year, she added that women need to quit trying to be perfectionists and grow thicker skin. Pick up and keep going.

I wonder if the issue of women’s looks will ever change with the incessant attention to fashion and image in the media and consumer products industry.

Women are expected to set aside or neglect their careers for domestic life.

General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra worked hard to climb the ladder while also balancing her work and home lives. She is married with two teenage children. She has ended meetings to go pick up her kids but has never let up on meeting professional demands. When faced with this stereotype, Barra’s answer was to be organized and push through it.

As mentioned, the new generation sees family as an important part of their lives. There are more dual career couples now than ever and the men are chipping in as active fathers as more women become equal or primary breadwinners. Men are beginning to deal with family issues in the same way as Barra.

Women are making progress in dispelling persistent myths. And since women’s tenacity and competiveness rivals men’s, let’s celebrate a better world as we watch them become true partners in achieving business and societal goals.

Susan Adams is professor of management and senior director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley.



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