Working with Gender Stereotypes

'Sugar and spice and all things nice'

Many researchers have explored how our gendered perceptions of leadership may subtly hold women back. Women may be perceived as 'too soft' or, if they do display assertion, can be labelled as 'dragon ladies'. This seems to be a continuum that women find difficult to navigate.

As a mentor, you can help your mentee explore these stereotypes more deeply and work out how she can avoid the trap of being either, for example, 'too soft' or 'too ballsy', and come to a more nuanced view.

A great technique to use here is called 'Extremes', which challenges mentees to let go of black and white ways of thinking about issues.

Mentee issue: The mentee, a woman, feels they are overlooked in meetings and their voice is not heard.
Mentor: “Can you describe to me a typical example of this?”
Mentee: “In the last leadership team meeting, I tried to make a point but one of the others just talked right over me. Later, someone else piped up with exactly my idea, and everyone applauded. It’s so frustrating! But I don’t want to be too pushy and talk over other people – I hate that.”
Mentor: “Let’s explore the two extremes of this. At one end of the spectrum is the person who never speaks up, sits quietly gazing into their lap the whole meeting, and at the other end is the pushy loudmouth. Is that right?”
Mentee: “Yes.”
Mentor: “Can we come up with a vivid way of describing each end – for example at the one end is “shrinking violet”. Who is at the other end?”
Mentee: “Tigger – you know, the bouncy character from Winnie the Pooh – he never shuts up, bounces all over place and demands immediate attention.”
Mentor: (draws a line on a piece of paper with Shrinking Violet at one end and Tigger at the other end. “Where would you currently be on this spectrum?”
Mentee: (points close to the Shrinking Violet end) “Here.”
Mentor: “Where would you prefer to be?”
Mentee: (points to a place between the middle and Tigger).
Mentor: “Great, now let’s describe in detail those two points”.
Now the mentee can describe in some detail exactly the behaviour they would display at that point on the spectrum and together with the mentor can map out a strategy for moving positions. Ideally, at the end of the conversation, they have a plan for how not to be overlooked in meetings.

Understanding gender scripts
We learn as children our social roles at work and home, by watching and absorbing what happens in our families, communities, at school, and in the media. It is not always obvious how we learned gender roles, but it is important to be aware of gender stereotypes we hold, especially if in cross-gender mentoring pairings.

If you are mentoring a woman, it may help to familiarise yourself with some typical socialised roles that women often learn. In the book, Athena Rising1, these are described in some detail.

Examples given include beliefs that women should:
  • Hesitate to ask for what they want
  • Avoid appearing too confident or showing other people up
  • Always cooperate, never compete
  • Choose between being attractive and smart
  • Work to please
  • Deny discomfort and anger

And men should:
  • Embody the protector archetype in relation to women
  • Never admit vulnerability

Whether or not you agree with any or all of these, the truth is we all have certain gender stereotypes in our head, and ‘scripts’ or patterns of behaviour that we fall back on, especially when under stress. For men, this may include taking on a paternal or brotherly role with women, especially a mentee. This is counterproductive as it positions the mentors as strong and competent and the mentee as weak and immature. So, don’t get stuck playing the ‘knight in shining armour’ to your ‘damsel in distress’, no matter how tempting this pattern may be for you.

In Doing Leadership Differently (2) Amanda Sinclair discusses two other common patterns. Some men can find it hard to ‘do’ intimacy with a woman except within a sexual relationship (this seems to be less of a problem for women). As a mentoring relationship gets close, beware the pull of attraction that can commonly play out. The other end of the scale is maternalisation of women in authority. Women in positions of authority can bring up unconscious feelings about mothers for both men and women, regardless of the behaviour of the woman in authority.

So, as a mentor, examine your feelings about women in the workplace. Do female leaders make you think about your mother or kindergarten teacher? If so, perhaps it is time to really understand some of the drivers below the surface for you at an unconscious level that might get in the way, with your female mentee.

1. Johnson, W. Brad, and Smith, David. (2016) Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion.
2. Sinclair, Amanda. (1998) Doing Leadership Differently. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press