When is it OK to stereotype?

by Mark Schickman

We are a country that is properly committed to judging people based on their individual qualifications and not stereotypes about their groups―race, gender, age, or ethnicity. One seldom sees articles suggesting that any one category makes a better executive than another. The one exception is the never-ending stream of articles that say women make better executives than do men―the most recent major survey out just last month.

Surely, there is a need to tout the skills of female executives because statistics show that women remain underrepresented in high executive positions. Another study this month shows that the Fortune 500 companies have workforces that are about half female, but only 21 of those companies have female CEOs. Women comprise 14.3% of executive positions and hold only 16.6% of the board seats in the Fortune 500. Women executives also earn 16% less than their male counterparts, tracking the national statistic that women generally earn 84% of what men do. For women of color, the statistics are far worse in every single category.

So it’s important to look past our biases and make our decisions based on individual merit. But should we create a remedy by suggesting another form of stereotypical analysis? Should we mitigate against the extra quarter-million dollars of income that taller, slimmer, good-looking employees receive during their lifetime by suggesting that unattractive people make better employees because they aren’t distracted by an active social life? No, whatever the motive, there is something fundamentally troubling about the broad argument that one class is better than another, something that tends to foster discrimination rather than halt it.

What battle of the sexes?

Nonetheless, a slew of studies concludes that women make better bosses than do men. Women bosses are viewed as more collaborative, more willing to adopt others’ ideas. Women executives are reported to be better problem solvers, more interested in finding a solution than in promoting their own ideas. Women are rated better at delegating and rewarding performance. Women supervisors are believed to be more nurturing of and less aggressively competitive with fellow employees. Employee morale is reportedly higher under female managers. Women more easily move to transitions and are less invested in the status quo.

Moving beyond job surveys and into the realm of political life, we don’t mind engaging in critical comparison of the sexes there, either. The 20 women in the U.S. Senate recently held a press event in which Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) sounded the bipartisan theme that the fiscal cliff crisis would be solved if women were in charge rather than President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner. Women tend to be “more collaborative,” said Collins, “less confrontational,” said McCaskill.

But in a recent Forbes Magazine article, columnist Victoria Pynchon called it overly simplistic (and likely wrong) for the senators to tie their problem-solving abilities to gender. Rather, she says, for a woman to crack the U.S. Senate, she needs to be an exceptional individual, and that is why she would solve the crisis. In addition, if these described differences are based on nurtured experience and socialization rather than anything inherent within the x or y chromosome, the characteristics that are commonly assigned to a gender are subject to great change across cultures and generations.

But in the final analysis, this discussion fuels an attention to gender that we have been trying to grow beyond for 50 years. Stereotypical thinking is a single danger, whether the stereotype is positive or negative. Once we buy the notion that it’s OK to think of women as a whole as more collaborative or less aggressive, then it becomes OK to similarly brand the group as more emotional or less committed.

Women and men do bring different perspectives to the workplace. The best managers learn from all perspectives and incorporate all those lessons into their leadership. A great leader will collaborate and empower but will be forceful and decisive when the situation demands it. Neither gender holds a monopoly on leadership traits. Thankfully, we are seeing individuals of both genders who pretty much have them all―neither from Mars nor from Venus but decidedly down to Earth.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco. He is a member of the Employers Counsel Network and editor of California Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at 415-541-0200 or schickman@freelandlaw.com.

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1 Vickie Pynchon
14:10:35, 21/01/13

Nice, thoughtful piece.

Yes, the problem with “good” stereotypes is that they limit people to their gender roles.

I’m a former trial attorney and commercial litigator. Benevolent stereotypes such as presumably being more collaborative, compassionate and thoughtful were not good for my practice, which called for an intense competitive spirit, a willingness to call the other side out for its defalcations and, yes, the ability to impose social punishments for misbehavior.

Anyone who sees me as a woman first (weighted with both positive and negative stereotypic characteristics) and a lawyer, mediator, arbitrator or consultant second, misses the greatest part of my value. 25 years of bet-the-company litigation and trial practice; seven years of commercial mediation practice; and now two years as a negotiation consultant, trainer and keynote speaker.

I’ve been advantaged and disadvantaged by my gender and certainly by my socio-economic class (middle-middle) and color (white) as are men are and people of color, gays, the religious and irreligious, immigrants and native born citizens alike.

What we must strive for is diversity and inclusivity, which requires a close attention to the application of stereotypes in our decision-making process.

I was at a party recently in a conversational circle of lawyers who were current or former ARCO in-house counsel. I started talking to the gentleman next to me, assuming he was the attorney and the striking woman by his side simply his “wife.” Really! And I’ve been in the women’s movement since ’75.

All assumptions limit us and our ability to connect and wisely choose our leaders and our advisors. Thanks for adding to that important conversation.

2 Vickie Pynchon
14:12:56, 21/01/13

. . . and (I didn’t finish the ARCO story) – the man to whom I was speaking was the husband of the former ARCO attorney. And yes, I was embarrassed and she was annoyed. Still, after all these years, I must adjust my stereotypic thinking.

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