Mary Beth Ferrante

Fighting against workplace inequality is just a typical day at the office for most women and minorities. Recently it has dominated the news cycle due to the outrage over sexual misconduct, the #MeToo movement and the birth of the #TimesUp campaign in Hollywood. But is there a more subconscious, widespread culprit at play as well? 

If you’ve been following the arguments and discussion around equal pay and the gender gap for any length of time, you’ll often hear that women gravitate to fields that pay less (for example teachers, social workers, nurses) than ones dominated by men. This argument typically sends me into a tailspin preaching about how our current system often compels women towards lower-paying and more-flexible work, since they are ultimately responsible for bearing children (hence the motherhood penalty). 

While I still maintain that the maternal wall needs to be discussed more broadly, a recent study suggests that part of the problem is that we actually gender stereotype certain jobs themselves. And once a job is stereotyped for a woman, that job subsequently has less authority and arguably becomes lower paying.

Think about it: while the rules are definitely not hard and fast when you consider almost any job, you’re likely to have a gender in mind. Nurse = Woman; Doctor = Man; Administrative Assistant = Woman; Firefighter = Man. This continues to surface even at the C-Suite. CEOs often tout how many women they have on their leadership teams, but too often the women are running HR, Marketing or Operations, while the men are running the revenue-generating arms of a business.

So instead of fighting to get more women into male-dominated roles, is the answer to actually fight to keep jobs from being stereotyped in the first place?

In their recently published study in the American Sociological Review, Laura Doering and Sarah Tehbaud examined microfinancing in Central America, a relatively undefined role in terms of gender. While managers in the field are split about 50/50 between men and women, their study showed that borrowers were more likely to make their payments on time when their manager was a man, and they were more likely to miss payments when their account was overseen by a woman. They attribute this to an immediate gender stereotyping of the position that gives women the perception of having less authority than their male counterparts.

Surprisingly, when a male manager took over the account from a female colleague, the role was still perceived as “women’s work” and his authority was undermined as well. Rather than only affecting female professionals, their conclusion is that stereotyping jobs is harming society overall.

While I’m sure most people don’t find the results shocking, taking corrective action seems more difficult since these stereotypes seem to become assigned and ingrained quickly. Judith Baxter, emeritus professor of applied linguistics at Aston University, argues that one place to start is with job titles and job descriptions. By removing gendered language we may slowly move the needle on what is defined as normal for both men and women. According to Baxter, “If we use non-gendered words most of the time, we begin to see people and professions as non-gendered too.” So perhaps we all need to take a step back and look at our language. The more we utilize non-gendered language, perhaps we can change the views of more people at work and in our day-to-day life.


Mary Beth Ferrante is the owner and founder of Live.Work.Lead., an organization dedicated to working with companies to retain top female talent by supporting women navigate their first critical year of becoming a new parent.  Live.Work.Lead. works with new and expecting moms through 1:1 and through group programs.  They also provide training to managers on the maternal wall and how to better support their employees planning for and returning from parental leave. Prior to founding Live.Work.Lead., Mary Beth was an SVP of Business Strategy for a Fortune 100 company. In addition, Live.Work.Lead. offers Virtual "Mommy and Me" Classes designed for Working Professionals.