You’re a good leader… for a girl

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By Rachel Garretson

“You play well for a girl.”

“Your handwriting is really good for a guy.”

“You know what? You’re actually really calm for a girl!”

“Wow, you’re sensitive for a guy.”

I really started to think about these kind of comments when the #likeagirl advertisement campaign by Always came out a few years ago. Beyond just being insulting, these backhanded compliments reveal quite strikingly that there is a difference in expectations for men and women. Anyone who’s been a victim of these comments knows that they can be demeaning, but did you know that these ideas can affect your career? 

You’d hope that everyone in your workplace is being compared to the same standards, right? Well if you’re one of our readers then you probably already know this isn’t the case. 

Researchers Monica Biernat and Diane Kobrynowicz wanted to know more about the differences in perceived ability for low-status vs. high-status group members. They did this by designing studies focused on perceptions of white men vs. perceptions of women and African American men.

Here’s what they did to study the situation.

Study participants were given a resume and a job description and asked to evaluate the “applicant” for the job. There were two catches: although everyone evaluated the same resume, some had the name “Kathryn” while others had the name “Kenneth” and, while the job description remained exactly the same, some were titled “executive secretary” and some were titled “executive chief of staff.”

And there’s one more thing to address. Some participants were asked to “objectively” assess the candidate, for example, by identifying specific skills that fit the job. Others were asked to “subjectively” assess using a scale that simply offered a range “Few Skills” to “Many Skills.”

Do you see where this is going? Here is what they found:

When using objective assessment, women were judged more positively for the feminine job and men for the masculine job, but when using subjective judgments the researchers found the opposite: When “Kathryn” was applying for the Chief of Staff position, she was ranked higher than “Kenneth” (and vice versa with Kenneth and the Secretary position, although less reliably so). In other words, when participants were asked to assess actual ability, women were channeled into the feminine job, despite the fact they were subjectively assessed as really good (ah hem)…for a woman.  

Stick with me here!

So here’s what you have to watch out for: if someone says that you are doing well, there is a good chance they are not comparing you to everyone, but to your group. You are doing well for a woman. The problem is that the definition of doing well for a woman is not the same as doing well for a man. There are lower standards (that are more easily met and exceeded) for women. 

This sort of group-based competency perception might sound like it benefits women, because you don’t have to do as well to be considered competent. But picture this:

lazy-sales-person1Imagine you just did a presentation at
work and you’re talking to your boss afterwards. He says that you did a really good job! This is great! He is
finally recognizing you for your awesomeness! Problem is, as the weeks pass you realize he’s still treating you like what’s-his-name down the hall. But you thought he was impressed!

Here’s the problem. You’ve heard of stereotypes, right? Well we have stereotypes about competence as well. Imagine them like bell curves. An imaginary  bell curve for each group: One for white men, one for white women, one for African American men, one for native women… well, you get the point. What’s happening is you are really really great… for a girl. You’re all the way up on that tail, but your bell curve–the one for women–well it only reaches about half way up the men’s bell curve. You may be straining against the limits of your boss’s expectations for you but since you are still stuck on the women’s bell curve in his mind, you can only ever be as good as a fairly competent man.  

Not so great a picture is it? And just think, if your boss is looking for people to promote, they’re not looking for someone who is good for a woman. They’re looking for someone who is good compared to their perception of competency for everyone. For women and African Americans it takes much more to reach an objective competency level then for a white male. 

Frustrated much?  Well don’t hulk out yet! Anger in the workplace may cause you a whole new set of problems (more on that in a future post).

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One way to combat this is to keep track of your accomplishments at work. What projects have you been a part of? What were the measures of success for those projects? And what did you contribute to those projects?

I’m serious.  Get a sheet of paper and write them down. No really.  Do it now.

That way, when your boss is looking for someone to promote, instead of relying on his perception of competence, you have documented proof of how valuable you are and why you should be promoted–not what’s-his-name down the hall!

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