We normally think of stereotypes as preconceived ideas we have about other people because of their gender, race, domestic situation, or other social identity.
However, we also have stereotypes about ourselves because of our own social identities. Thus, we are likely to unconsciously hold assumptions about our own skills, available opportunities, and appropriate goals. These assumptions are the result of the gender stereotypes we have internalized throughout our lives. Unfortunately, these stereotype-driven assumptions frequently foster negative preconceptions about our abilities and prospects, creating what we refer to as self-limiting biases. For example, as a woman, you tell yourself you are not good at math, or computer science is not an appropriate pursuit for you, or negotiation would not fit your abilities. And as a man, you might think you are not good at emotional expression, or nursing is not an appropriate pursuit, or you would be a poor human resources manager.
Negative assumptions like these can cause you to restrict the type of activities you pursue, circumscribe the possibilities you believe are open to you, and make you anxious and uncertain when faced with new tasks or ones about which you doubt your ability.
Take one well-documented phenomenon: Men typically apply for jobs when they meet approximately 60% of the stated job criteria, but women typically won’t apply until they feel they meet 100% of the criteria.
Women’s hesitancy in such situations is due, in part, to uncomfortable feelings associated with hirers scrutinizing their abilities; they feel more comfortable when the requested abilities are precisely the ones they possess. For the same reason, women often choose career assignments and positions that involve less risk, lower visibility, fewer challenges, and less responsibility than those chosen by their male colleagues—all situations which reflect instances of self-limiting bias.
The concept of “stereotype threat” is often the trigger for self-limiting bias. For example, a stereotype threat is at play if a woman becomes anxious or uncertain about her abilities when expected to perform a task around which there are strong male stereotypes—say, one calling for leadership, competition, or self-promotion. Likewise, stereotype threat might cause a woman to be uncomfortable and apprehensive in a situation in which gender is highly salient—say, negotiating against a man, leading a team composed primarily of men, or being one of only a few women in a large meeting (whether virtual or in person). And stereotype threat is likely to be the primary cause when a woman believes—unconsciously—that her gender takes her out of running for certain career pursuits (roles in engineering, investment banking, or construction come to mind), which are not “right” for her like other roles (such as careers in teaching, publishing, and fashion) may be.
Another example, if a woman believes women are not particularly skilled negotiators but adequate administrators, she is less likely to volunteer to work on a major merger or acquisition over offering to, perhaps, develop a new employee training system.
Self-limiting bias and gender segregation
The substantial gender segregation among job types in America is frequently attributed to the “demand side” of the process, such as employers’ decisions about whom they will hire, welcome into the fold, and later advance in the company.
There is some recent evidence, however, that “supply-side” factors play a role. That is, women’s and men’s personal decisions about where they want to work and what they want to work at contribute to this segregation. For example, 80% of social workers are women but only 15% of computer programmers are. Unquestionably. this is not entirely the result of demand-side factors. Past research studies appear to bear this conclusion out. Women MBA graduates were found to be far less likely to apply for jobs in finance and consulting than were comparably credentialed men. The researchers concluded that the women’s choices were due in large part to their concluding finance and consulting were not “appropriate” for them because of the strong male stereotypes associated with these pursuits.
Combatting self-limiting bias
We are pointing out the existence of extreme gender career segregation not to suggest that some career pursuits are better than others but to alert you to the need to think carefully about whom you are and whom you want to be before making serious career choices. You should be certain these career choices are not being inappropriately limited by internalized stereotypes and misgivings about your abilities simply because of your gender. To keep you from unnecessarily limiting your career choices and advancement opportunities, here are some helpful techniques to take on.
- Do a self-analysis. First of all, it is essential to understand when and why you experience threats around stereotypes. If you can recognize the presence of stereotype threat, you will realize the anxiety you are experiencing has nothing to do with your lack of ability and is more about your personal preconceptions. In this way, you will transform your anxiety from self-doubt to something more akin to stage fright, which can become a source of energy, heightened awareness, and improved performance.
- Take differences out. A second thing you can do to combat self-limiting bias is to view situations in which gender is highly salient through a nongendered lens. Don’t think, “I am the only woman in this meeting,” but something like, “I am one of only two MBAs in this meeting” or “I am the most experienced person for this job.” In other words, in these situations, think about your strengths, background, and potential—not your gender.
- Humor yourself. Finally, keep in mind that a sense of humor is always a useful coping method to self-limiting bias. By bringing humor to difficult, unfamiliar, or just plain uncomfortable situations, you can diminish your negative emotional reactions and increase your performance capabilities.Using humor to cope with self-limiting bias is not about laughing the situation off, but rather cultivating an attitude that sees gender stereotypes not just as discriminatory and limiting, but slightly ridiculous, too. For there is something truly laughable about anyone believing in the 21st century that women are poor negotiators, lack ambition, or cannot be effective leaders. When you can see the absurdity of gender stereotypes, around your own gender and those of the opposite, you are far better able to reimagine uncomfortable and stressful choices as opportunities not dangers.
By being aware of your own internalized stereotypes, as well as how to fight these problematic limitations, you can unlock more activities you want to pursue, reduce personal anxiety, and discover more about yourself.
Andie Kramer and Al Harris are communication and gender bias experts, and the authors of BREAKING THROUGH BIAS: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It. They have spent more than 30 years helping women advance in their careers through writing, speaking, and mentoring.