Overcoming gender stereotyping in performance management

Although over the past thirty years or so there has been a dramatic increase of women in the workforce, with more than 50 percent of all managers and professionals being female, women still comprise less than 2 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs and just 7.9 percent of Fortune 500 top earners. A familiar list of reasons attempts to explain why this is so; Women are reluctant to put in the eighty-hour workweeks and globetrotting required for a shot at the corner office; they are too concentrated in staff jobs like human resources or marketing, where they never learn crucial profit-and-loss responsibility; they don’t have informal mentoring and networking opportunities, such as golfing with male power holders. But these explanations belie the basic truth demonstrated by countless surveys that there is little difference between the leadership styles of successful male and female bosses. A primary problem is that both genders still hold to unwarranted stereotypes. This problem was pointed out in a new study of 296 top executives by Catalyst, the New York research group. To their credit, men said both men and women were roughly equal when it came to team building, mentoring, consulting, and networking. They even gave women higher marks on two qualities: supporting and rewarding. But in a disturbing find, men said they were superior to women on the four critical leadership skills of problem solving, inspiring, delegating, and “influencing upward,” or being able to have an impact on the people above you. Yet Catalyst’s study found that women are giving up important ground. Women said they are better at supporting and rewarding employees and at the important tasks of problem solving, team building, mentoring, consulting, and inspiring. But they also said men are better at networking, influencing upward, and delegating.

“Women as well as men perceive women leaders as better at caretaker behaviors and men as better at take-charge behaviors,” according to Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst. “These are perceptions, not the reality.” But perceptions strongly influence reality. Sex-role stereotypes clearly influence employee performance ratings. After analyzing past reviews of managers, one company found that women who weren’t considered “supportive” mentors received negative ratings, whilenonsupportive men weren’t judged negatively. “Men aren’t expected to be supportive, so they’re not criticized when they aren’t,” says Ms. Lang. It isn’t surprising that women are rated as more effective leaders when they work in so-called feminine occupations, such as cosmetics or fashion companies, than when they are employed in a traditionally masculine industry such as steel. Respondents in Catalyst’s study who had a female boss in a feminine occupation were likely to judge women as better problem solvers than men; but those with a female boss in a masculine occupation expressed profoundly negative views of women leaders. Therefore, simply hiring more women into management positions isn’t likely to eliminate stereotyping. Catalyst advises companies to combat stereotyping by making sure men and women are judged equally on performancereviews, and educating managers of both genders about the often unconscious influence of stereotyping.

Source: Adapted from C. Hymowitz, “Too Many Women Fall for Stereotypes of Selves, Study Says,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), October 24, 2005: B1.


How are these unfounded gender stereotypes detrimental to an organization’s ongoing competitive performance?

How can gender stereotypes influence a manager’s various performance management activities and decisions?

The context of the research examined here is within large Western organizations. What possible additional culturally based challenges might exist for countering such gender stereotypes in developing countries?

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