article

Sexist Stereotypes

Revel Gordon

Talented women can easily find themselves tagged with a number of unfortunate stereotypes. These labels – which are almost never applied to men – can jeapordise careers. Worse, this insidious double standard is subtle and can be difficult to measure at an organisational level. Things are slowly improving, with a number of CEOs taking an active role in changing cultural norms. In the meantime however, individual female execs need to take ownership of their personal brands and ensure they are not pigeonholed in unhelpful ways.

A common stereotype amongst talented female execs

The stereotype I see most often with my female executive clients is the one around being seen as too ‘pushy’. These are typically women who are smart, successful, high achievers who are all about results. They don’t suffer fools and are generally a few steps ahead of everyone else. These are broadly positive qualities. However, their male peers often view them with suspicion and more than a touch of envy. It is an unfortunate reality that while aggressively ambitious males are typically seen as ‘go getters’, women who demonstrate these identical qualities are often viewed in more negative terms. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon in her unvarnished must-read book ‘Lean In’.

Unconscious bias

Often this male bias is unconscious. A few years ago a highly intelligent, successful and thoroughly decent man I was coaching said to me of a female colleague: “Yes, she’s talented and does a good job. But, underneath it all, she’s always out for herself.” To which I replied “Sure, and so are you!”. Until that moment, the double standard hadn’t even occurred to him.

Good peer relationships are crucial

The most effective way to neutralise being labeled as ‘too pushy’ is to develop good personal relationships with your peers. It is very difficult for someone to apply a one-dimensional label to a colleague that they know well, respect and like. There are a whole raft of other reasons why sound peer relationships are vital for any executive – such as making it easier for the company to promote you, easier for you to get things done – but this is a particularly critical element of career management for ambitious women.

However, some of the ‘traditional’ methods of peer-bonding can be problematic for women. Catching up for a few drinks or going out for dinner with male colleagues can send mixed messages, particularly one-on-one. So what to do?

Non-agenda conversations – a great way to bond with colleagues

One of the most effective ways to get to know your colleagues is the ‘non-agenda conversation’. Your personal objective for these chats is simple: for you to get to know the other person, and for them to get to know you. That’s it. No work agenda at all. They don’t have to be long discussions. They could be as short as a minute spent ‘shooting the breeze’ around the water cooler, or fifteen minutes grabbing an impromptu coffee together. It could be the occasional lunch or just popping your head around your colleague’s door, checking if they are free, and talking for a few minutes.

The topic of conversation isn’t important, as long as it is not task-related. Talk about what you both did on the weekend. Ask about their kids. Find out about their hobbies. If they want to speak about what’s going on for them at work, that’s fine, too. You will be amazed at what a positive impact these brief conversations can have. Think about it from your colleague’s perspective: in a world where every person who comes to see them wants something – support for a proposal, an update on a project, etc – here you are just coming to get to know them better. This is sincerely flattering, and as Dale Carnegie said in his classic book ‘How to win friends and influence people’, human beings love to talk about themselves. And by keeping the conversations brief and light, you are also being respectful of their time.

Consider the difference between openness and intimacy

While being open with colleagues is good, you do need to think carefully about when and with whom you drift into intimacy. The boundary between the two is tricky to determine, but one good test is to ask yourself this: “Would I be comfortable if my boss’s boss knew this?” If not, then you have defined the boundary between openness and intimacy for yourself.

There may be a small number of very close colleagues that you trust absolutely. These are the people with whom you may choose to share your deeper thoughts and the issues you are facing outside of work. Know consciously who these people are, and monitor yourself with everyone else. Once you have crossed the line into intimacy, it can be difficult to retract.

You are NOT too busy… make the time!

Most coachees immediately appreciate the importance of non-agenda conversations. However, occasionally a client will say to me “But I’m too busy to do that!” They are looking at this the wrong way. These non-agenda conversations are not idle social calls. They are a critical part of career management. They are also incredibly efficient! A few minutes spent every day or two chatting to colleagues will quickly build significant trust between you and your peers, which is important for every exec. If you are a hard-driving, results-oriented female leader, these conversations have the added benefit of moderating any potentially unhelpful perceptions about you. Yes, you are ambitious, but you also have all the joys, cares, problems and other ‘stuff’ that makes us human. When your colleagues get to know you as a whole person, it is very difficult for unfair stereotypes to gain traction. This allows you to keep your ambition dialed up, while avoiding any of the collateral issues this can create. And besides, getting on well with your colleagues makes being at work that much more enjoyable.

A suggested structure

If you are someone for whom the idea of non-agenda conversations is new and perhaps challenging, why not make things easy for yourself by putting some structure around the process. Write down a list of those peers you want to develop a better relationship with. Decide where they lie in terms of your openness/intimacy boundary. I’d start with between two and four people, though if you’re a more shy individual, then maybe just start with one. Next, give your relationship with each person a rating out of ten. Then, set aside time in your schedule for non-agenda conversations. Pick a number that is a stretch, but also realistic. Two to three ‘chats’ per week might be a reasonable place to start. After three weeks – by which time you should have had a number of unstructured conversations with everyone on your list – go back and re-rate your relationship with each person. Odds are you will see a significant improvement. You should aim to make these conversations part of your day-to-day routine.

Conclusion

Women face a number of unfortunate double standards at work, including potentially being labeled with unhelpful stereotypes that are never applied to men. Do not allow this to happen to you. If you are a talented, driven woman, it is particularly important to make sure you pay attention to your peer relationships. Not only will this ensure you avoid being unfairly pigeonholed, but those relationships will become key assets, both to yourself and to your peers, and will make your time at work that much more rewarding.

Talented women can easily find themselves tagged with a number of unfortunate stereotypes. These labels – which are almost never applied to men – can jeapordise careers. Worse, this insidious double standard is subtle and can be difficult to measure at an organisational level. Things are slowly improving, with a number of CEOs taking an active role in changing cultural norms. In the meantime however, individual female execs need to take ownership of their personal brands and ensure they are not pigeonholed in unhelpful ways.

A common stereotype amongst talented female execs

The stereotype I see most often with my female executive clients is the one around being seen as too ‘pushy’. These are typically women who are smart, successful, high achievers who are all about results. They don’t suffer fools and are generally a few steps ahead of everyone else. These are broadly positive qualities. However, their male peers often view them with suspicion and more than a touch of envy. It is an unfortunate reality that while aggressively ambitious males are typically seen as ‘go getters’, women who demonstrate these identical qualities are often viewed in more negative terms. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon in her unvarnished must-read book ‘Lean In’.

Unconscious bias

Often this male bias is unconscious. A few years ago a highly intelligent, successful and thoroughly decent man I was coaching said to me of a female colleague: “Yes, she’s talented and does a good job. But, underneath it all, she’s always out for herself.” To which I replied “Sure, and so are you!”. Until that moment, the double standard hadn’t even occurred to him.

Good peer relationships are crucial

The most effective way to neutralise being labeled as ‘too pushy’ is to develop good personal relationships with your peers. It is very difficult for someone to apply a one-dimensional label to a colleague that they know well, respect and like. There are a whole raft of other reasons why sound peer relationships are vital for any executive – such as making it easier for the company to promote you, easier for you to get things done – but this is a particularly critical element of career management for ambitious women.

However, some of the ‘traditional’ methods of peer-bonding can be problematic for women. Catching up for a few drinks or going out for dinner with male colleagues can send mixed messages, particularly one-on-one. So what to do?

Non-agenda conversations – a great way to bond with colleagues

One of the most effective ways to get to know your colleagues is the ‘non-agenda conversation’. Your personal objective for these chats is simple: for you to get to know the other person, and for them to get to know you. That’s it. No work agenda at all. They don’t have to be long discussions. They could be as short as a minute spent ‘shooting the breeze’ around the water cooler, or fifteen minutes grabbing an impromptu coffee together. It could be the occasional lunch or just popping your head around your colleague’s door, checking if they are free, and talking for a few minutes.

The topic of conversation isn’t important, as long as it is not task-related. Talk about what you both did on the weekend. Ask about their kids. Find out about their hobbies. If they want to speak about what’s going on for them at work, that’s fine, too. You will be amazed at what a positive impact these brief conversations can have. Think about it from your colleague’s perspective: in a world where every person who comes to see them wants something – support for a proposal, an update on a project, etc – here you are just coming to get to know them better. This is sincerely flattering, and as Dale Carnegie said in his classic book ‘How to win friends and influence people’, human beings love to talk about themselves. And by keeping the conversations brief and light, you are also being respectful of their time.

Consider the difference between openness and intimacy

While being open with colleagues is good, you do need to think carefully about when and with whom you drift into intimacy. The boundary between the two is tricky to determine, but one good test is to ask yourself this: “Would I be comfortable if my boss’s boss knew this?” If not, then you have defined the boundary between openness and intimacy for yourself.

There may be a small number of very close colleagues that you trust absolutely. These are the people with whom you may choose to share your deeper thoughts and the issues you are facing outside of work. Know consciously who these people are, and monitor yourself with everyone else. Once you have crossed the line into intimacy, it can be difficult to retract.

You are NOT too busy… make the time!

Most coachees immediately appreciate the importance of non-agenda conversations. However, occasionally a client will say to me “But I’m too busy to do that!” They are looking at this the wrong way. These non-agenda conversations are not idle social calls. They are a critical part of career management. They are also incredibly efficient! A few minutes spent every day or two chatting to colleagues will quickly build significant trust between you and your peers, which is important for every exec. If you are a hard-driving, results-oriented female leader, these conversations have the added benefit of moderating any potentially unhelpful perceptions about you. Yes, you are ambitious, but you also have all the joys, cares, problems and other ‘stuff’ that makes us human. When your colleagues get to know you as a whole person, it is very difficult for unfair stereotypes to gain traction. This allows you to keep your ambition dialed up, while avoiding any of the collateral issues this can create. And besides, getting on well with your colleagues makes being at work that much more enjoyable.

A suggested structure

If you are someone for whom the idea of non-agenda conversations is new and perhaps challenging, why not make things easy for yourself by putting some structure around the process. Write down a list of those peers you want to develop a better relationship with. Decide where they lie in terms of your openness/intimacy boundary. I’d start with between two and four people, though if you’re a more shy individual, then maybe just start with one. Next, give your relationship with each person a rating out of ten. Then, set aside time in your schedule for non-agenda conversations. Pick a number that is a stretch, but also realistic. Two to three ‘chats’ per week might be a reasonable place to start. After three weeks – by which time you should have had a number of unstructured conversations with everyone on your list – go back and re-rate your relationship with each person. Odds are you will see a significant improvement. You should aim to make these conversations part of your day-to-day routine.

Conclusion

Women face a number of unfortunate double standards at work, including potentially being labeled with unhelpful stereotypes that are never applied to men. Do not allow this to happen to you. If you are a talented, driven woman, it is particularly important to make sure you pay attention to your peer relationships. Not only will this ensure you avoid being unfairly pigeonholed, but those relationships will become key assets, both to yourself and to your peers, and will make your time at work that much more rewarding.