On the surface, the stereotypes of women in the workplace tend to be positive, consistent with social norms to avoid being prejudiced, says Ioana Latu.
However, negative stereotypes are still quite prevalent, explains the assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden. “Like viruses,” she says, these associations have become increasingly implicit – existing below our awareness level, where they continue to influence behavior.
“For instance, women are associated with managerial incompetence, while the opposite association is true for men,” says Latu, a Collingswood resident. “While these stereotypes – however wrong and inappropriate – exist, it is crucial to learn how they play out in workplace interactions.”
In an eye-opening new study, Latu teams with researchers Marianne Schmid Mast and Tracie Stewart to examine the roles of interviewers’ and applicants’ implicit and explicit stereotypes in predicting women’s job interview outcomes. The researchers document their findings in the forthcoming issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly.
“Are these stereotypes really important in our interactions?” asks Latu. “What do they predict, and do we see different outcomes for people who have these stereotypes?”
To answer these questions, the researchers staged 30 mock job interviews, consisting of a male interviewer and female job applicant. Prior to beginning each interview, an experimenter informed the participants that they would be taking part in a seemingly unrelated study, which, in fact, measured their implicit and explicit stereotypes.
Using computer-based, reaction-timed tests, the authors measured how quickly participants associate women with attributes signifying incompetence, and men with traits signifying competence.
“If I have negative implicit stereotypes about women, I would be faster to associate men with competence than women, and vice versa,” explains Latu, who formerly served as a Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione fellow at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.
The participants then conducted the interviews – believed to be part of a separate study – for a fictitious marketing manager position. Following the exchanges, the interviewers and applicants were asked to evaluate how well the applicants had done. In addition, two external coders watched the videotaped interviews and were asked to grade the applicants and decide if they would hire them.
The study found that the stronger that male interviewers implicitly associated incompetence with females, the worse that women actually performed in the interviews.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Latu. “It’s unfortunate that we find this, but it means that these stereotypes are somehow communicated within the social interaction in the job interview in such a way that women perform worse. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you expect women to fail because of your stereotype, then they are going to fail.”
The Rutgers–Camden researcher notes that the lowest graded performances of female candidates occurred when women interacted with interviewers who had high implicit, but low explicit stereotypes. According to Latu, this indicates that, although the interviewers might have expressed their beliefs that women are competent, their nonverbal behaviors were sending mixed signals.
“We think that, nonverbally, it wasn’t supportive or encouraging behavior,” says Latu. “In turn, female job applicants are putting all of their energy into trying to figure out what is happening.”
Based on the findings, the researchers suggest several strategies to make people more aware, and thus reduce the effects, of these gender biases. For instance, they are examining ways in which interviewers can tweak their nonverbal behaviors in order to foster better outcomes for applicants. Likewise, affirms Latu, interviewers can be trained to assess performance based on clear evaluation criteria, rather than relying on their own subjective stereotypes.
In line with her prior research on racial biases, Latu suggests that trainings can also be designed to teach people how to consider situational explanations for what they deem to be negative behavior.
“If someone is late, the assumption would be that they are lazy or disorganized, but maybe there was traffic or the alarm didn’t go off,” she says. “That is something that we do all the time for ourselves and our own group, but not for others whom we feel negatively about.”
Latu posits that strategies can also be designed to help women reduce their own implicit stereotypes. In her previous research, she found that inspiring female role models can actually provide an “empowerment boost” to women with leadership aspirations. For a video explaining that study, view her online biography.
According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, although much progress has been made to remedy gender inequality, “we still aren’t there yet.” Consequently, she says, only by becoming aware that these stereotypes still exist can they be eliminated.
“It is empowering to be able to offer people the tools to do that,” she says. “Even by making people aware of them helps to reduce them.”