Women Benefit When They Downplay Gender

 

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Ashley Martin by Nicole Torres for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Martin, an incoming assistant professor at Stanford, and Katherine Phillips, a Columbia professor, asked people to rate their agreement with varying statements about the importance of gender differences. They found that women who believed in focusing on men’s and women’s similarities (“gender blindness”) felt greater power and confidence than women who advocated celebrating women’s distinctive qualities (“gender awareness”). The researchers’ conclusion: Women benefit when they downplay gender.

Professor Martin, defend your research.

Martin: Across this study and four others, we saw the same pattern: Downplaying differences made women more confident. They thought they could overcome challenges at work. They felt comfortable disagreeing with others. They said they would take more risks, take initiative, negotiate. These effects were strongest in male-dominated environments.

What does it mean to downplay gender?

Gender blindness and gender awareness are both strategies for achieving equality. Awareness is a set of beliefs or practices that promote acknowledging and embracing gender differences. Gender blindness, obviously, is the opposite, but it doesn’t actually mean ignoring differences. It means deemphasizing them, seeing them as less important than other factors. It’s about focusing on similarities but also about individuality: what makes someone unique as a person rather than what makes someone different as a woman. Both strategies are well-intentioned, but there’s uncertainty about which one is better.

It sounds as if you’re saying gender blindness is.

Our findings suggest that in certain contexts it is. Blindness removes the “male” connotation from traits and behaviors like assertiveness, competitiveness, and risk taking, which are necessary to get ahead at work. “Ungendering” these qualities makes women more likely to recognize them in themselves and to feel more confident.

It’s a little sad to hear that women have to downplay their gender to be better regarded at work. Haven’t we gotten past that?

Gender blindness is counterintuitive, because we’re often told to celebrate diversity. But embracing diversity is not at all the problem. The problem is really the types of differences we emphasize.

Women thought an emphasis on gender differences hurt perceptions of them.

Which differences are problematic?

I’m talking about fundamental personality, interest, and skill-based differences, which, to be honest, are really stereotypes around what men and women are supposedly good at and what they like. Our first study found that when women are asked to think of gender differences, they end up listing things like agency, assertiveness, independence, competitiveness, and action taking. We still tend to associate those qualities with men and with leaders. And we found that women thought an emphasis on these “differences” negatively affected people’s perceptions of them as leaders.

So we’re talking about downplaying perceived differences in abilities, not differences in outcomes?

Absolutely. We don’t want to downplay issues that exist, like the systemic inequality women face. It’s been shown that meritocratic policies, which don’t recognize that people face different treatment and have different opportunities at work, are detrimental to women and minorities. If you’re blind to those differences, you’re ignoring systemic problems within your organization that lead women to feel less confident. You’re saying, well, if it’s not the system, it must be the women. That’s harmful.

Gender blindness needs to be applied very carefully. It’s about eliminating the idea that women have different skills and abilities, because they don’t.

But doesn’t downplaying your gender feel a little…inauthentic?

Not at all. Gender blindness doesn’t mean that women should act more like men; it diminishes the idea that certain qualities are associated with men and women. In fact, I think gender awareness has the same risk of promoting inauthenticity, especially if women don’t necessarily identify with “feminine” traits and behaviors. Highlighting gender differences and then telling women—and men—to bring their authentic selves to work assumes that their authentic selves revolve around their gender. Gender blindness allows people to be truly authentic, rather than defining what authenticity means for men and women.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Nicole Torres is an associate editor at Harvard Business Review.

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