7 ways gender stereotypes hold women back at work – and how to tackle them

If you close your eyes and imagine what a CEO or a leader looks like, what image comes to mind? 

A man or a woman? 

For many people, men and women alike, it’s still a man.  Indeed, a recent report polling 20,000 men and women across 10 countries found that women, in general, are still not seen as being as suitable for leadership roles as men.

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This is an example of negative gender bias at work. We all use stereotypes in our daily lives – they allow us to “know” immediately a host of things about someone because of the widely-held characteristics we automatically attribute to them.  They form our impressions and guide our decisions sometimes without us even being aware of it. 

Despite efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, where gender stereotypes persist, they continue to put women in boxes and limit their ability to be as effective as they can be. 

These are 7 common gender stereotypes and how you can work through them.

1. Women aren’t good leaders

Assertiveness, power and taking charge tend to considered typically male attributes, whilst building relationships, caring for others and cooperation tend to be characteristics associated more with women. Organisations hiring leaders can still fall into the “think leader, think male” trap.

How to tackle it

  • Chance favours the prepared mind. So take responsibility for what you want to achieve by making a plan with supporting goals and actions. 
  • Build your self-awareness. Understand your strengths and preferences, and leverage them in what you do; know your development areas and how you can start to tackle them. 
  • Share your ambitions with your manager and explain how you’d like their support. Ask them for feedback. You’ll get better results if you’re specific in what you ask for. 
  • Build your business knowledge and ask for experience and exposure to different Functions – Operations, Finance, Sales etc – and different leaders.
  • Be yourself. Recognise your differences, strengths and the value you bring.

2. Nice girls don’t ask

Another widely-held perception is that women are more sensitive than men to the needs of others. As they grow up, girls have typically learnt not to ask and always to put others first. Career progress can be seriously impacted if you don’t vocalise what you want and why you should have it, and if you’re valued for your likeability rather than your competence. 

How to tackle it

  • Note down your accomplishments and contributions on a weekly basis. It’s essential to be able to articulate the reasons why you deserve an increase or a promotion.
  • Practice asking for things at work. Opportunities to take on projects, promotions and pay rises. Start small and build your confidence.

3. Women lack self-confidence 

Much has been written about how lack of self-confidence affects women’s advancement at work. The desire to wait until everything is “perfect” is considered to be a typically feminine trait, but can also be perceived as an inability to make decisions or a lack of belief in your own abilities. 

How to tackle it

  • Notice your internal self-talk and the language you use. Try to consciously change negative thoughts about yourself. Focus on what you can change, rather than on what you can’t.
  • Create an ‘I’ve got this’ list of 20 things you’ve ‘handled’ in your life so far. Challenges or fears you’ve overcome, situations you’ve navigated or things you feel proud of.
  • Aim for awesome rather than perfect. If you wait until you’re ready, it’s often too late. Get in the habit of using mistakes to your advantage and learning from them.

4. Competent women are unlikeable 

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg said success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a woman is successful, people like her less. Female leaders are under constant judgement for being seen as someone who takes charge and is “too hard” or someone who takes care and is “too soft.” They are perceived as likeable or competent, but rarely both.

How to tackle it

  • Learn to know yourself and your leadership style. Think about what type of leader you want to be. What’s important to you? What characteristics do you value in leaders you admire? How does that translate into behaviours and actions you can apply in your role?
  • Be aware of stereotypes and stick to your own style and values. 
  • Focus on building respect. When you encounter difficult workplace relationships, address them. Be fair and professional. These conversations take courage but they’re critical in setting the tone for who you are, how you lead and in building your reputation.

5. Women don’t blow their own trumpets 

In work environments where visibility and achievement are critical for recognition, it’s thought that women tend not to value and communicate their own successes easily, meaning sometimes they don’t get credit for their accomplishments.

Visibility is key to being successful and part of visibility is making people aware of how good you are and how serious you are about your career. 

How to tackle it

  • Keep track of your achievements. It’s important for building self-esteem as well as visibility.  Think about how these successes benefit the business and look for opportunities to share them with your manager and with your wider network. 
  • Think about what it is you want to achieve and draw up a stakeholder map of the key people in your network. Include those inside and outside your organisation, people senior to you, your peers and others. Be strategic, consider who you need to have a stronger connection with and what tactics you can use to engage with them. 
  • Mentors who advise you and support your growth, and sponsors who can advocate for you publicly and facilitate introductions, are invaluable to build visibility. We often already have mentors within our networks who provide advice in various ways – all it takes is a little effort from us to grow that connection into an ongoing relationship.

6. Women are less likely to speak up in meetings and when they do, more likely to be silenced 

When a woman presents an idea, she is more likely to be interrupted than a male colleague. If she raises her voice and continues, she is considered shrill and emotional.  Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote that “when a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive…as a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

How to tackle it

  • Think about the situations where you feel you don’t speak out and consider what’s holding you back. Think of something you’d like to recommend at work and practise stating your position. Use your next few internal meetings to experiment with different styles and approaches. Analyse how you felt each time and how each style was received. 
  • If you’re interrupted, keep a check on your emotions and don’t let frustration get the better of you. Take a deep breath, adjust your posture, maintain eye contact and a steady tone, and keep going.  Find a few key sentences that recognise you’ve been interrupted and show you mean to continue, “I’ll finish my point, then I’m interested in hearing your perspective.”
  • Find an ally and build a strategy of amplifying one another’s comments during meetings to ensure you’re heard. Echoing and attributing a good point means that it’s heard and its author remembered. Reiterate ideas in follow-up emails or memos afterwards. 

7. Women are more committed to family than career

As the gender that gives birth, much is assumed about women and their careers. If you’ve recently returned from maternity leave, your manager may assume you can’t take on anything too important, too strategic or requiring travel. Sometimes, opportunities may simply not be offered because of assumptions about the impact of a woman’s family commitments on her career.

How to tackle it

  • If you’re a career- and family-minded woman, understanding your ambitions and how high you want to go is a critical first step. Get your partner onboard early to build a realistic plan of how you’re going to manage personal and professional commitments without total self-sacrifice. 
  • Consider what and how you need to work to be effective – including what you might need to ask for, how you might need to protect your time or what you won’t allow others to do. Emphasise your boundaries through your own actions and behaviours with structure, prioritisation and delegation. Communicate them clearly and explain why they’re important. 
  • Vocalise your advancement desires. Many managers assume women aren’t as career minded as men, so share your ambitions, ask for feedback and support for next steps.

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An important part of the battle with gender stereotypes is about raising awareness – realising when you might be experiencing bias and speaking up; educating men, and other women who may not have been on the receiving end of gender bias at work. 

While it’s vital to tackle these issues on an individual level, the onus is also on organisations to step up and make the cultural changes needed to provide inclusive workplaces with equal opportunities for everyone. 

Managing workplace stress: interview with Charlie McIver

Stress Awareness Month is recognised every April and aims to increase public awareness of the global stress epidemic we face today. According to the Mental Health Foundation, over 74 per cent of adults in the UK state that at some point over the last year they have felt overwhelmed by stress or unable to cope. 

Many of us have our own ways of dealing with stress and this month, I’d like to share the experiences and stress-beating tips of 3 successful people, whose approaches I admire.

My third profile is of Charlie McIver, Vice President Customer Success EMEA at nCino inc – a cloud-based software company modernising the way banks work.

Charlie currently runs all customer facing operations in EMEA and has been supporting the growth of nCino’s footprint in Europe since 2017. He leads a team of 60 people based in the UK and on the continent.

Four questions to Charlie

What makes your job important to you?

nCino started out as a high-growth tech start-up what feels like just a short time ago, and we’re now already 9-years old. The last few years have been an intense growth period as we expand in Europe. We’ve had to build a high-performance delivery machine, while growing fast to match customer demand AND get extremely happy customers who will be references! It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to deliver our product, fulfil customers’ needs, and at the same time be part of such a fast-moving environment. We’re building for tomorrow as quickly as we’re delivering today.

Why do you believe it’s so important to manage stress at work?

I believe there is a real difference between healthy pressure and unhealthy stress. 
When stress comes out it’s not pretty. It can be anger, irrationality, indecisiveness – all those things that undermine health, affect relationships, set poor leadership examples or confuse people who take their direction from you. People under stressful pressure can feel forced to do things that create compromise somewhere. Nobody benefits!

How do you manage stress at work?

A major part of my role as a leader is managing the needs of different groups of stakeholders – customers, sales-people, and my delivery team – so, proactively recognising what situations might create problems, is key. I spend a lot of team talking to people, aligning expectations and ensuring that everyone understands ideal outcomes and probable challenges.

At nCino, we have a very strong company culture underpinned by core values that we really believe in – it’s a critical part of building a healthy work environment. When everyone is working hard, pulling towards the right outcomes, doing it the right way, we accomplish amazing things! It’s a very positive environment – we win together and I love it!

As a team we try to share worries openly. Talking about a problem and unpacking it allows people to take a step back, put things into perspective and see the big picture. We figure out how to solve things together, and it helps people feel less overwhelmed. This last year in the pandemic has been particularly tough with many people having to juggle working from home and managing kids off school. It’s really easy to get frustrated with someone being late for a meeting or not getting something done as expected. Being open minded and kind to others, not sweating the small stuff, as clichéd as it may sound, is a fundamental aspect of creating a positive work environment. 

On top of that, our customers needed to dramatically change how they do business in the pandemic – everything became digital – and they asked us to help them with that. We made super-human efforts to deliver on critical projects that allow UK banks to supply new lending schemes. If they, and we, hadn’t been able to do this, the impact would have been felt across the UK, far beyond the boundaries of the banking sector itself.  It’s been humbling to work with my team to accomplish these things. 

What coping mechanisms do you use to manage your own stress?

  • Surround yourself with people who are respectful, positive, problem-solving, open minded, driven. Hiring people with the right mindset to fit culturally within your organisation is as important as their skills and experience. The same is true in our personal lives – I try to surround myself with people who will err towards positivity and progress. Everyone has their ups and downs, and positive-minded people will help get you through tough times, and it’s great to return the favour!
  • Analyse stressful situations, understand motivations, rationalise, communicate.
    I usually find if I take step back, think about things rationally and talk to people, I find perspective and a way to change the situation, or frame it as a challenge to solve.
  • Don’t take things personally. Translate stress into a driving force and move on. 
    My early career was filled with passion. It was a good driver, but occasionally I’d spin my wheels on something. This wasn’t going to help my career, so I worked on translating that into getting things done. 
  • Use hobbies and passions as escapism. Step away from issues and come back with a fresh mind. I’ve always worked crazy-hard, so hobbies that provide a complete break to allow the mind to subconsciously unwind are tremendously helpful.
  • Identify role models, understand and emulate how they handle stress. Over the years I’ve benefitted from some great leaders and at nCino I have some great executives who are extremely approachable. Having those types of role models is helpful to learn and emulate.