Many banks have diversity and equity programs designed to address these gender imbalances and improve the recruitment and retention of women in traditionally masculine domains. Yet research I’ve conducted with my colleagues across a range of male-dominated fields suggests that these efforts may be ineffective unless more is done to counter the effect of negative gender stereotypes.
A large body of research has accumulated about the consequences of worrying that you are the target of negative stereotypes — a feeling termed stereotype threat. Most jobs involve being judged by peers, supervisors, or customers. Yet women face the additional concern of being judged as a stereotypical woman — for example, being perceived as sensitive, emotional, less committed to their careers, and generally lacking in leadership ability.
Stereotype threat is triggered by the awareness that others may evaluate you through the lens of negative stereotypes, regardless of whether you believe the stereotype to be true of yourself. Thus, although the vast majority of people experience evaluation apprehension when they know they are being judged, stereotype threat can result in additional concerns for women in the workplace.
My research across a dozen and thousands of employees has found that women who experience stereotype threat are less satisfied and committed to their jobs and are more inclined to quit. In a recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, we surveyed over 500 women working in banking and finance. Results revealed that women who experience stereotype threat have a reduced sense of well-being at work. These women say their jobs make them feel tense, uneasy, and depressed.
In this study, we also investigated how stereotype threat impacts the recruitment of younger women to finance and banking. This is an important issue, as women who are well established in the field can provide inspiration and encouragement to other women considering it as their occupation.
Yet women who felt stereotyped at work reported being less likely to recommend finance and banking to young women who are choosing a career, thus diminishing their potential to positively influence the recruitment of other women to the field. These findings are particularly worrisome given that recruitment and retention of women into fields where they have been historically underrepresented is key to achieving the "critical mass" of women necessary to reduce perceptions of tokenism and the stereotyping and devaluing of women.
Gender stereotypes have persisted in spite of increased participation of women in the workforce and calls for diversity in management. Given the negative consequences of stereotype threat, organizations should consider strategies to help minimize it.
Our previous research suggests that female role models can help alleviate stereotype threat for working women. For example, we found that female accountants who read about a female partner were buffered from the negative effects of stereotype threat. These data suggest that the presence of successful women leaders within organizations and the provision of female mentors should help lessen the threat of gender stereotypes for women working in male-dominated fields.
The proportion of other women in a given setting has also been shown to affect feelings of stereotype threat. In another experiment, we found that just reminding female accountants of the low percentage of female partners in their firm caused them to experience increased stereotype threat. It seems that working in an organization where there is a significant imbalance in gender representation in the upper echelons may lead to stereotype threat for employees whose group is not well represented, particularly when this imbalance is brought to their attention.
In short, to address the negative consequences of stereotype threat for women in banking, organizations should work towards increasing the numbers of women in higher-level positions. Women in leadership positions serve as evidence that the organization supports women, thereby lessening the threat of gender stereotypes for other women who are trying to climb the career ladder. This strategy should also have the added benefit of aiding recruitment of women to the field.
Although our research highlights the difficulties inherent in being female in male-dominated fields, it also suggests the promise for the successful integration of such fields once a critical mass of women has been reached. Indeed, there is often a tipping point in male-dominated fields, in which rapid integration occurs after many years of slow progress.
Courtney von Hippel is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia.