Ahead of International Women’s Day 2022 and in the first of a series of upcoming interviews, Head of Insights at the FSCB Kate Coombs speaks to our academic collaborators, London Business School and UCL associate professors Aneeta Rattan and Raina Brands, about stereotypes in the workplace and how to guard against them.
Kate: Why are stereotypes harmful in the workplace? And how can firms guard against them?
Aneeta: Stereotypes are these over generalisations that we make about groups, and often they are incorrect. If you’re starting with a flawed assumption, and then you apply that assumption to individuals in your organisation, you are exhibiting inaccurate, problematic, flawed person perception or information processing. There are quite a few stereotypes that undervalue or deny the competence and abilities of major populations of society and of the world, for example, racial minority women and men.
The first thing that organisations must do is understand that the status quo is that stereotypes are in play. All employees come from a culture where they have learned a set of stereotypes. People from different cultures may have learned different stereotypes, but everyone is coming into the workplace with stereotypes in mind. Given this reality, it really is the responsibility of organisations to take that seriously and therefore create procedures, policies and practices that prevent the application of stereotypes.
In our Career Equally work, we speak to women about handling the extra hurdles they might face as a function of stereotypes. However, the real responsibility lies with organisations. There are real steps leaders can take procedurally, as well as in terms of how managers evaluate people or interact with people, to address the impact of stereotyping on evaluations and therefore on progress.
Kate: What examples of workplace good practice for mitigating stereotypes you have observed?
Aneeta: In some of my research I have found that people are systematically less likely to apply stereotypes when evaluation questions are framed in more specific, concrete terms, tied to evidence of someone’s abilities, rather than framed in general terms. When you ask people about someone’s technical skills, they show less evidence, or in the case of my research, no evidence of stereotyping based on gender or race. However, when you ask about things like overall ability or hire ability, those who are highly vulnerable to stereotypes, like racial minority women, are negatively impacted. One way of addressing stereotypes is to review your performance evaluation measures and metrics and ensure they are specific, that they require evidence and that the inputs into those evidence are not vulnerable to stereotypes themselves or to shifting standards based on stereotypes. You want to ensure that the same concrete performance is evaluated and accounted equally.
Any practice that an organisation implements needs to be followed up with evaluation to see whether that status quo of bias that I mentioned earlier is finding its way through. So, let us say an organisation chooses to have gender diverse hiring committees to try and mitigate hiring biases against women. There is some data out there that suggests this can be effective, and anecdotally many of the companies I work with mention this as something that has benefitted them. However, there is other data that shows that women in leadership positions in organisations can exhibit similar stereotypes as men do when they are hiring. The evidence in the research base is conflicting there, so any company that decides to implement this practice should just collect data on the diversity of the applicant pool, the diversity of hires, and on the evaluations. Aggregating across an appropriate number of hires can then help organisations to see whether women and men differ in their evaluations, and whether gender diverse hiring panels are benefiting equal hiring. Then there is a secondary analysis they need to do about whether a practice like that is disproportionately damaging the careers of the women being asked to sit on those committees. If they are underrepresented, then that is another way bias can creep through. You implement a practice that is designed to reduce bias in one domain, but it burdens the individuals who represent them in the company because you are demanding more of them that can have real concrete and profound career outcomes. If that were to be the case, companies would need to implement new procedures to offset these demands, and also include these contributions in pay, bonus, and promotion evaluations.
Kate: In our 2021 Employee Survey we ask whether people felt worried that people would draw conclusions about their abilities based on stereotypes about their background. What is it about the anticipation of being stereotyped that can be harmful and why should firms be mindful about this?
Aneeta: I crafted this item for inclusion in the FSCB survey based on my past research. This item is designed to capture the kind of distracting worry that I may experience stereotyping based on my identities. I use the phrase ‘distracting worry in order and, in part, to emphasise the experience of having this concern. Think about your average workday: you sign onto your email, you are reading feedback from colleagues, you may have a meeting with your manager as well as a series of interactions with clients. You have all these different types of interactions and throughout those interactions if you are a member of an underrepresented, excluded, or stigmatised group, you know the people you interact with may judge you or treat you differently from others – through the lens of the negative stereotypes about your identity. That is not a one-time background thought. It can be an active worry in people’s minds. There are decades of research in social psychology, some of which is my own, which shows that having that worry active in your mind is distracting. It takes up some of our working memory and some of our ability to focus. It tires us out.
That worry in and of itself can also drive down our sense of belonging because if in my everyday interactions with my manager and my team I am having to worry about whether they are only saying that to me because of their assumptions or stereotypes about my identity, that automatically signals a lack of trust. It also automatically signals a sense of exclusion because these negative stereotypes are devaluing.
This kind of worry is not restricted only to members of excluded or overlooked groups, though the workplace is structured to evoke it most often from them. However, we know that anyone can experience this worry. White men could worry that they are going to be seen and judged through the stereotypes that people have about white men. This is a normal psychological process, but is one that is disproportionately felt, and experienced and can come to be more chronic for members of overlooked and excluded groups. And, it can negatively affect both performance and belonging, and through doing that it can negatively affect career progression over time. We write about how women and racial minority women can try to navigate these worries in our Career Equally newsletter, but really the way to create change – and halt these distracting worries – is for organisations to advance their inclusion and equity practices.