The challenges faced by women in the workplace, particularly in male dominated areas, is an important on-going discussion happening all around the world.
Most people are aware of gender biases in the types of jobs people pursue; doctors are more likely to be male, nurses are more likely to be female.
While there have been great strides made in breaking down some of these gender roles, there is still a gap in the ratio of men and women in certain fields (eg science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as well as concern about the glass ceilings or leaky pipelines that result in many women dropping out before reaching higher positions within organisations and fields.
As a professional woman this is also a topic that is near and dear to my heart, as I’ve watched friends leave promising jobs because they haven’t had the support they need to overcome some of the barriers that they faced, working in male-dominated companies.
In this article I want to look at two key challenges faced by women in the workforce: imposter syndrome; and stereotype threat. Both of these are making it harder for women to feel comfortable and successful in male dominated workforces.
To help illustrate my point let me share a quick story:
I was catching up with a friend from out of town, when she started telling me about a job that she had just started. It was in the sales industry and she was really looking forward to it, because she felt that it was going to provide her with career opportunities that her previous retail job wouldn’t have. She was excited about this because she wanted to open her own business, and was looking for practical ways to learn more about running a successful business.
Fast forward a while and we were catching up again when I asked her how the job was going. She surprised me by saying that she had quit.
We talked about why and she told me that she didn’t think she was cut out for it. She began describing her experiences working in this particularly male dominated company, and even though they were great to work with, she always felt like a bit of an outsider, and that a lot of the sales approaches were difficult for her, because they were more aggressive than she was comfortable with.
She said that early on someone (another female working there who left shortly after) had said that women always do well at sales, just because they’re women, and even though the person left shortly afterwards because she wasn’t doing well, my friend found that this idea kept coming back to haunt her. The comment made by her colleague early on had been reinforced by other similar comments, as well as her own observations that women sometimes benefited from being more approachable.
On the days she did well in sales, she began to doubt herself and wonder if she had just done well because she was female, and she worried that other people would think the same. This moderate amount of self-doubt grew when she started teaching others, particularly new women, about sales techniques and business strategies. She felt like she was being fake because she was teaching them skills and strategies that she wasn’t even sure were working for her.
She described reaching a point where she just wanted to talk it through with someone and figure out what she could do. When she went looking for someone to support her and help her work through it, though, she didn’t find anyone that she was comfortable discussing her concerns with. This was because she felt (whether correctly or not) that the men who may have been in a position to help wouldn’t understand, or that they would think she was being overly dramatic or just a stereotypical emotional female.
When I asked her if there were other women in the company she said yes, but they often didn’t stay long and there weren’t really women higher up, which made it even more difficult for her to envision herself progressing. So, she decided to leave.
This story hints at some of the systematic biases and organisational issues that may have contributed to her desire to leave, but I want to focus primarily on the psychological side of her experience, and the fears and concerns that she was dealing with.
For the purposes of this article let’s call my friend Sally.
Sally’s feelings of being fake when she progressed to teaching sales strategies, is a common experience known as imposter syndrome. I’ve written a more detailed look at imposter syndrome here, but what it basically boils down to, is when a person feels like a fraud because they believe they don’t deserve to be where they are – despite evidence of current or previous success and achievement.
Imposter syndrome is not unique to women, but it can be a common experience for women working in male dominated fields.
In Sally’s case her sense of being an imposter came partly from thinking she wasn’t capable of doing the job, and partly from feeling like an outsider.
Sally’s own self-doubt about whether her success in sales was from her own skill, or the uncontrollable fact that she was female – as well as her worry about teaching others the techniques when she wasn’t confident in her own ability to use them – made her feel uncomfortable and created quite a bit of anxiety for her.
She also struggled with accepting her position in the company, because when she was experiencing self-doubt about how successful women could be in sales, she didn’t have a concrete example of a woman that had already achieved success in the company. Although Sally didn’t describe this, I can imagine myself in that position, being quite stressed about the idea of having to be the pioneering woman and setting the example for others, when I wasn’t sure that I knew what I was doing.
There are many examples of celebrities and well known women describing their experiences with imposter syndrome as well as women working in areas such as software development and astrophysics and everything in between. Tina Fey, Emma Watson, and Maya Angelou have all written or spoken about their own personal experiences with imposter syndrome.
Stereotype threat is a specific type of stress where a person is worried about conforming to a negative stereotype about a group they belong to. These feelings can lead to reduced performance and deliberately changing behaviour to avoid the association.
A famous study demonstrating this effect, tested women’s performance on a math test under two different conditions:
- Where the threat of being judged on stereotypes about women being bad at math were high; and again,
- When it was low.
The group of women who were told that women generally do worse on math tests did indeed perform worse than expected, and significantly worse than their equally qualified male counter parts.
However, when the threat of conforming to the negative stereotype was taken away by mentioning that the test didn’t produce gender differences, women performed equally well as the men, eliminating the gender difference.
Stereotype threat is particularly relevant to women working in male dominated domains, because it’s almost impossible to escape the reminders of negative stereotypes about women.
Often it through in subtle ways, such as realising you’re the only woman in the meeting, or a well-intentioned comment from a colleague telling you that they’re surprised that you did well on a particular task. It could be something more direct, such as a comment along the lines of “I don’t expect you to do this because you’re a girl”. Regardless of whether it’s subtle or not, these reminders of the fact that we’re women can affect both our actions and our performance.
In Sally’s case we don’t see an effect of stereotype threat on her performance, although she may have experienced that as well, but we do see the way that stereotype threat affected her willingness to ask for help when she needed it. When looking for someone to talk to, she worried that her male co-workers would think she was being overly dramatic or emotional.
Research into how to overcome stereotype threat, has focused mostly on groups rather than individuals and the results have been conflicting. However, some research has shown that writing out self-affirmations before doing a task can help reduce stereotype threat for that task, which may be a practical tool for those facing this challenge at work.
Both imposter syndrome and stereotype threat are more likely to be experienced by minorities in the situation, which makes them strong contenders for being one of the many challenges faced by women in male dominated workplaces.
But we don’t have to suffer alone. If you’re feeling like you are affected by either or both of these phenomenon, don’t be afraid to reach out to a mentor, friend, or psychologist.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of sport and exercise for mental health. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
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