6 Real Ways Gender Stereotypes Hurt Women at Work

Woman at work


Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Gender stereotypes are, unfortunately, pervasive in our society and many parts of the world. While not synonymous with gender discrimination, they are often accompanied by or lead to it, contributing to toxic environments for those affected by them. This can start as early as infanthood and persist into school and beyond. They are rampant in the workplace and certain industries (some more than others).

Why are gender stereotypes so harmful? And what steps can individuals, employers and others take to combat them? Let’s take a look.

What is a gender stereotype?

Gender stereotypes are preconceived notions or generalized views about people or certain different genders the characteristics they do or should embody.

It’s important to note that gender and sex are not one and the same. Sex refers to biological characteristics established at birth, including genitalia and reproductive systems. Gender, meanwhile, is a social construct that refers to the attributes, behaviors, identities, standards, sexualities and characteristics societies assign. The sex people are assigned at birth doesn’t necessarily correlate with people’s gender identities. 

Gender expectations play a large role in perpetuating gender stereotypes, which can be extremely harmful to people of all ages, including children and adults alike. It may affect their education, work, aspirations, decisions and many other aspects of their lives. 

What is gender stereotyping?

Gender stereotyping is the act of overgeneralizing about people of a certain gender or ascribing certain characteristics, behaviors and qualities to groups of people of a specific gender solely based on their gender, often without really knowing the individual. 

These assumptions usually aren’t backed by concrete facts or evidence; instead, they may be based on general societal conceptions or an individual's previous personal experiences with people of a certain gender. Gender stereotyping means that they are overgeneralizing about all people of that gender.

Often, it goes hand-in-hand with sexist behavior, although this isn’t always the case. It is also correlated with perpetuating biases against people of certain genders.

Why are gender stereotypes harmful?

Gender stereotypes are harmful to people of different genders in a number of ways. Here are a few. (Remember: gender is not limited to male and female, nor does it always align with the biological sex a person is assigned at birth based on physical characteristics.)

  1. They can force people into specific boxes that may stay with them throughout their lives.
  2. They encourage a linear view of what genders are and mean and limit forms of self-expression and identity.
  3. They can (and often do) lead to forming biases against people of certain genders.
  4. They can prevent people from achieving their ambitions because they are inhibited by society’s views of what they should be.
  5. They often contribute to low self-esteem and a negative sense of self-worth that is not representative of their true abilities or skills.
  6. They affect people early, often as children, thus have reverberating consequences throughout their lives. 
  7. They lead to underrepresentation in disciplines like STEM-related ones, which, in turn, impacts innovation, contributions and the presence (or lack thereof) of different perspectives in these fields.
  8. They can adversely impact people’s careers — for example, childcare responsibilities often fall to women because of the stereotype that they should assume parenting duties, which can be detrimental to their work.
  9. They can lead to discriminatory behavior and actions in many different sectors. 
  10. They can affect people’s abilities to have access to necessities, such as healthcare, education, resources and more.
  11. In some cases, they will lead to violence against people of specific genders.
  12. They often intersect with stereotypes of other groups, typically minority groups, and thus can have further consequences. 

Gender stereotype examples at work

The workplace is one environment in which gender stereotyping is all too common. Examples include:

  1.  People of different genders are often associated with certain industries or professions, such as STEM, as noted above; men are often more associated with science, math, engineering and technologies careers
  2. Women are sometimes perceived as “softer,” more pleasant or less confident than men, which can impact their ability to speak up in meetings or advance in their careers
  3. Women who do take charge and are authoritative may be deemed cold, overzealous and unlikable
  4. Women are more commonly associated with secretarial or assistant roles and may be given work that is under their pay grade or not aligned with their abilities or education level
  5. Women may be passed over for promotions because of the belief that they will one day leave to have children or take care of their families because they are more often associated with the home than men are
  6. In professions where physical strength is necessary, women may be deemed as less able to take on certain responsibilities or tasks because they are perceived as weaker than men.

Bear in mind that this is by no means representative of every company or every industry — these are simply gender stereotypes that reverberate throughout many workplaces in several sectors. Moreover, this list is incomplete.

Gender stereotype examples at school

Gender stereotyping can start from a young age — even in preschool (or earlier). Pervasive stereotypes in school (in the present and/or throughout history) are:

  1. Parents and teachers often encourage boys to pursue sports-related activities.
  2. “Rough-housing” is tolerated more frequently in boys’ play.
  3. Girls are more commonly steered toward careers in the humanities, while boys are encouraged in STEM disciplines.
  4. Dress codes can be different for male and female students.
  5. Teachers and authority figures may dismiss misbehavior in boys, saying “Boys will be boys.”
  6. Meanwhile, girls are thought to be sweeter and more innocent.

Again, as with gender stereotypes in the workplace, this list is not complete, nor is it representative of all schools. Many schools and educational systems and striving to combat these and other gender stereotypes, such as establishing STEM and athletic programs for girls.

How we can fight gender stereotypes

Here are just some of the ways individuals, businesses and educators can combat gender stereotypes and contribute to a more equitable society and environment for everyone.

1. Point out instances of someone gender stereotyping when you see it happening.

If you hear someone make an unsettling remark or see instances of gender stereotyping, speak up. Question unfair norms, even if they are long-established. It’s quite possible the reason they’re still in place is that nobody has said anything against them.

Point out instances of gender stereotypes in the media, too. This can be helpful to teach others, especially children, about the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes and why they’re harmful to everyone.

2. If you are in the position to create policies, ensure that they are gender-inclusive and devoid of gender stereotypes.

Create policies that are inclusive of all genders and groups of people. Ask your employees and colleagues for feedback on how you can improve your policies to make them more equitable, addressing aspects such as phrasing and wording in addition to the content.

Moreover, you should ensure that workplace trainings are inclusive and that trainers are careful in choosing language and representative scenarios (in all situations, not just harassment training).

3. Establish safe spaces for people to talk about gender issues, stereotypes and discrimination.

Even if you’re not in a leadership role at your organization, you can still contribute to a more equitable and inclusive workplace and environment. For example, you might start groups for women and nonbinary people to discuss the role of gender stereotyping at work and how you can devise solutions to making it a safer and more productive environment for everyone.

Employee resources groups (ERGs) are one way businesses foster diversity and give a voice to people who have been marginalized in the workplace.

4. In education, develop and use gender-inclusive course materials.

Educators should be cognizant of their course materials and approaches to teaching. Be sure to include readings and other materials that don’t perpetuate gender stereotypes and actively combat them, pointing out people of all genders and sexualities throughout history and characters in books who grappled with and overcame stereotypes. Use materials that promote equity and inclusion.

5. Be a role model.

Defy gender stereotypes. Actively combat gender stereotypes by pursuing your interests and talents no matter what others think you should or shouldn’t do. At the same time, consider ways you may have perpetuated gender stereotypes in the past and think about different approaches, such as better and more thoughtful ways of framing issues.