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12 July 2010

Great Expectations


Those of us suffering through the eighteen days of summer heat in Brussels tip our hats to those of you in the wintery
(a mild winter, I’ve been assured) Southern Hemisphere, where World Cup fever (congrats to Spain!), has proliferated from South Africa and where Australia recently swore in a new female Prime Minister

The Australian Stock Exchange’s Corporate Governance Council also just released the final version of its Principles and Recommendations, which will prompt companies to report their gender statistics, diversity policies, and measurable objectives for achieving gender parity in the upper ranks. 


Like many states in Europe, Australian policy makers are taking bold steps to address low levels of female representation at senior company levels.  Indeed, a recent McKinsey survey found that companies who’d made efforts to empower women in emerging markets reported increased profits as a direct result of those efforts.

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In an age when gender equality is supported in most parts of the world, where females are outperforming males academically, where data has proven that gender parity brings economic and social benefits, where indeed female presidents are becoming less uncommon, the question people always ask me is:  Then – why aren’t more women making it to the top?

Many experts say it’s because of the little things – that we should, in fact be Sweating the Small Stuff

This “Small Stuff” includes micro-inequities and stereotype threat, which many experts believe affect learning and performance.  You may be familiar with Harvard research on the Pygmalion effect.  Simply put, when a teacher expects a student to do well, the student does well; when a teacher has low expectations of a student, performance and growth are hampered in that student.  Extrapolate this to the business world and implications are far-reaching for engagement and productivity.

Micro-inequities are small events, resulting from inherent biases manifested in gestures, words, treatment, and tone of voice – pervasive forms of subtle discrimination that affect performance.  Our filters (unconscious stereotypes picked up from the environment, media, experiences growing up, etc.), shape our individual responses.  An example of this might be when one person in a meeting (say, a female) speaks, and other attendees start checking their Blackberries, fail to make eye contact, stop paying attention.  Experts believe that these subtle slights, compounded over days, months, years – a career –can have a profound and deleterious effect on ambition and performance. 

In March I was in Washington, D.C. for a conference, where Dr. Claude Steele, Provost of Columbia University, showed us a schematic of the Math department building at Stanford University.  There was only one female toilet in the large, multi-floor building – and it was located in the basement.  For twenty years, Dr. Steele has researched stereotype threat, or how negative stereotypes can have an influence on performance (for more, see his recently released book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us). 


The vignette that Dr. Steele shared with us was staggering: women and men comprised of top math students in the U.S. were given a math test.  In the control group, the women scored lower than the men on the test.  In the experimental group, only one thing was changed prior to the students taking the test – the women were told that for this particular math test, women score higher than men (this of course, was not at all true).  When the ‘stereotype threat’ was removed by this lie, however, the female scores skyrocketed.

Is it possible that one tiny sentence about a test, while changing nothing material about the test, could have such an impact on the self-belief of the test-takers?  In short, yes, according to Dr. Steele.  He believes that when a math task is important to women, their performance is affected by the stereotype that all women are poor at math.

Being reduced to a stereotype is disturbing and all human beings can suffer from this on a cognitive level.  Dr. Steele told us that when we’re worried about being stereotyped (and this could be about our gender, culture, sexual orientation, race, etc.) it preoccupies us, and therefore both our learning and our performance are impaired.  That’s because we ruminate, we worry, we spend precious mental capital fighting it, which takes cognitive abilities away from the task and undermines our performance. 

Research shows that micro-inequities and stereotyping could be much more pervasive and harmful than any of the “bigger stuff” such as overt sexual harassment (at that same conference in D.C., I heard Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett aptly describe this as “death by a thousand cuts”).  So how do we overcome it? 

Awareness is a good starting point.  PwC’s Reggie Butler helps teach our U.S. employees about ‘filters’ that may affect their treatment of others.  Studies by Catalyst both in the U.S. and in Europe provide strategies to overcome such threats.  Catalyst also released a gender stereotype risk assessment toolkit last year and discussed the topic on a recent Catalyzing Blog.  Check out this article from Pink Magazine for tips to empower yourself to overcome the “small stuff.”

I was recently telling my husband about my summer league softball coach – I was the shortstop, and during practice Coach L. made me stand a few yards away while he slammed balls at me as hard as he could with a metal bat – I had nothing but my softball glove between me and either a concussion or a really nasty bruise.  Initially, it was terrifying – I believe I said something to the effect of: “Why are you DOING this to me??!!”  with all the aplomb of a righteously indignant teenager.  He was teaching me of course to have nerves of steel, but more importantly, not to flinch when the ball came flying at my body via the other team’s batter. 

Coach L. said he wouldn’t be whacking softballs at me if he didn’t think I had the reflexes and agility to field those balls.  He expected a lot of me.  “And you should expect a lot of yourself too,” he said, “because if you expect nothing, you’ll get nothing.”

à bientôt,


P.S. – Inspired by the smallest house in Amsterdam and the smallest house in Paris, I’ll soon be bringing you my smallest blog ever. 


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