Study shows exposure to counter-stereotypes help others accept women in leadership.
Close your eyes and picture a leader. If the leader is a male, you’re experiencing the phenomenon called “Think Manager, Think Male.” Erroneously, masculine attributes like competitiveness and aggressiveness are perceived to be needed for management positions. “Think Manager, Think Male” happens with both sexes but most frequently with men.
Changing that knee-jerk reaction, of course, is a long and involved process, but seeing what works and what doesn’t contributes to achieving gender parity in all roles, including women in leadership positions. A recent research study by Carola Leicht, Georgina Randsley de Moura, and Richard J. Crisp entitled “Contesting gender stereotypes stimulates generalized fairness in the selection of leaders” (Leadership Quarterly, July 2014) shows that being exposed to counter gender-stereotypical employees reduces biases associated with the selection of leaders.
“The researchers used 3 different experiments with university students to show that exposure to non-traditional role models does make a difference,” says Dr. Sam Paustian-Underdahl, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management & International Business at FIU. She explains, “First, students in the research were asked to list ten characteristics of a mechanic. For half of the group, the mechanic they were exposed to was a male, the stereotype for the profession; for the other half, the mechanic was a female, in a non-traditional role,” Dr. Paustian-Underdahl says.
Next, all students in the studies were asked about the suitability of a candidate for a student leadership position. The students who had been exposed to the female mechanic were more likely –- in this second part of the study –- to give a more positive evaluation of a leadership candidate who was non-typical.
“While this study does not show how long-lasting the effect is, apparently, being exposed to counter-stereotypes even in roles outside of leadership changes our evaluation of what a leader should be like,” says Dr. Paustian-Underdahl.
Diversity training helps to bring that exposure
She says the research seems to suggest that organizations that want people to move away from “Think Manager, Think Male” need to expose their workers to people in counter-stereotypical roles.
“Diversity training helps to bring that exposure,” Dr. Paustian-Underdahl says. So actions such as hiring diverse employees for many roles, featuring counter-stereotypical employees in newsletters and other corporate communications, and, most of all, making sure the hiring and advancement procedures in companies help reduce the use of the ‘Think Manager, Think Male’ bias.
“If your organization has diverse people in many roles, people are less likely to rely on their biases to make assumptions as to the suitability of women in leadership roles,” Dr. Paustian-Underdahl concludes.