Demeaning stereotypes persist in our workplaces. Employees may feel threatened or judged by their bosses or coworkers based on the groups they are part of (i.e. gender, age or ethnic groups). Many employees justifiably feel threatened by these stereotypes.
Interestingly, the stereotyping doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the workplace. For example, the negative stereotype that holds women aren’t as good at math as men plagues female CPAs, despite their obvious expertise in mathematics. In one study, women were asked their gender prior to taking a math test, and then did worse than those who were not asked their gender prior to the test (Shih et al, 1999).
Another stereotype, which suggests that older employees do not perform as well as their younger counterparts (which numerous studies have shown to be false), influences many older employees’ desire to resign or retire.
EXAMINING STEREOTYPE THREAT
Stereotype threats can either be acute or chronic. Acute threat occurs when people are reminded of a negative stereotype just before attempting the type of task to which the stereotype refers. Laboratory research shows that acute threats, which may be spoken or visual in nature, results in participants performing worse than those who didn’t get the stereotype reminder.
Chronic stereotype threat may be felt if there are daily visual reminders that persist over time, such as very small numbers of women and minorities in management or board meetings.
In a large U.S. and Australian study, employees over age 50 reporting chronic age stereotype threat also reported less job satisfaction, less organizational commitment and more intent to leave their companies (von Hippel et al, 2013). Similarly, women employed in the legal field who experienced chronic gender stereotype threat reported less satisfaction and commitment and greater turnover intentions (von Hippel et al, 2011).
HOW PROFESSIONAL IDENTITIES CAN CAUSE INDIVIDUAL CONFLICT
Women experiencing gender stereotype threat may cope with the threat by separating their work identity and their female identity, which causes internal conflict. This conflict results in lowered career aspirations and less motivation to succeed as the psychological cost gets too high.
Women’s leadership aspirations are particularly at risk. Leadership research showed that stereotype threat, combined with being the only woman present, caused female employees to have less belief in their own leadership ability and lower performance (Hoyt et al, 2010). In short, female employees may “psych themselves out.”
HOW TO COMBAT STEREOTYPE THREAT IN YOUR ORGANIZATION
How can organizations combat the negative effects of stereotype threat? More research is needed in order to answer this question thoroughly. But if an organization has a broad diversity of age, gender and ethnicity amongst its employees, the threat of stereotyping is visually interrupted.
In addition, strong psychological contracts with employees should reduce their perceptions of stereotypes in their workplace. Written or spoken self-affirmation has also been shown to be effective against stereotype threat in students and women, on math and other tests of their abilities.
Similar self-affirmation could be incorporated into workplace management training and other types of development programs. Self-awareness of stereotype threat can enlighten employees so that they no longer react to it. After all, knowledge is power.