Attitudes that Hamper Women’s Progress - IEDP
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Attitudes that Hamper Women’s Progress

Why business should counter the powerful effects of 'gender determinism'


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When women participate in peace processes, “often overlooked issues such as human rights, individual justice, national reconciliation, economic renewal are often brought to the forefront,” said Hillary Clinton this month at an event sponsored by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS).

This may be true but in reality far too few women get to the top table to be able to contribute to such processes. Nor according to this presentation, made at another GUIWS event by Professor Catherine Tinsley, executive director of the GIWS, which lays out the statistics on women’s advancement in business, are women fairly represented on the boards of corporations around the world. And this is despite the positive effect of female board members on corporate sustainability as evidenced by research from UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Despite the enormous advances women have made in the workplace something seems to be holding them back and keeping them from the top jobs and political posts (with of course many honourable exceptions). One cause may be that our attitudes towards women’s roles lag stubbornly behind the reality.

According to Sofie Gråbøl, who played the brilliant detective Sara Lund in the 2011 Danish crime thriller The Killing, most people thought Lund’s ability to trace the murderer, while the male policemen around her failed, was due to ‘female intuition’. Whereas Gråbøl affirms that Lund’s success was entirely due to intelligent deduction and determination. Gender did not come into it.

An article in the current issue of Georgetown Business focuses on our perception of the gender of the ‘breadwinner’. It points out that a 40% of US households with children younger than 18 have mothers who are their family’s sole or primary source of income and of this group, 5.1 million are married women with a higher income than their husbands. Interviewed for this article McDonough School of Business professor Tinsley, whose research reveals that the majority of American men and women across all ages and races still prefer men to be the primary breadwinner, explains the reason for this disconnect between reality and attitudes: behavioural shifts in society tend to happen first, but shifting attitudes based on deep-rooted beliefs takes longer.

Tinsley speaks of the powerful effect of ‘gender determinism’. People high on gender determinism think gender is really important, whereas those low on gender determinism think gender is not important — that no one gender has a particular skill, or is likely to engage in a particular behaviour over another.

People high on gender determinism will say things like “women are much better team players than men” or “men are much better at being authoritative and making decisions; women get emotional.” Whether it’s innate or socialized, the research shows that people think there are big differences across the genders and surprisingly, as a whole, people in their 20s have just as much gender determinism as people in their 40s.

The effect of this in a business context could perhaps explain the continuing gender wage gap, why women still encounter glass ceilings, and why we are still talking about women’s issues at all. Exposure to role models engaging in behaviour usually associated with the opposite sex can help lessen gender determinism. For companies, assessing gender determinism in executives is an option that could make a difference and would not be difficult. If managers responsible for recruitment are high on gender determinism, perhaps assuming a woman is going to have work-family conflict, then women are more likely to be penalized.

Tinsley’s research shows that attitudes to traditional gender roles are surprisingly robust, even in the face of changing behaviours, but looking positively to the future she concludes “Some people think gender defines little about a person’s character or behaviours. These people may be early adopters of beliefs that allow for an expanding gender role for both men and women. My take is that this is the trend, and more discussion of the real-life dynamics of women engaging in traditionally ‘male’ behaviours like being primary breadwinners should accelerate progress.”

Read the Article in Georgetown Business (pages 22-25)

Since its founding in 1957, the McDonough School of Business has garnered global recognition for excellence in international business.

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