Gender Stereotypes and the Biases They Foster Against Women in the Workplace

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


We all use stereotypes in our daily lives. They allow us to immediately “know” a whole host of things about particular sorts of people because of some other of their attributes. For example, we might classify someone as strong/weak, friend/foe, competent/incompetent, or skilled/not skilled simply because she or he is a woman or a man, black or white, old or young, rich or poor, and so forth.

When we use stereotypes in this way, we can behave toward particular sorts of people based on these stereotypes we hold instead of based on their real characteristics. For example, we typically ascribe to women and men different physical, mental and emotional characteristics. Thus, women are (or should be) communal, which means they are (or should be) warm, pleasant, caregiving, gentle, modest, sensitive and affectionate. And men are (or should be) agentic, which means they are (or should be) strong, forceful, aggressive, competent, competitive and independent.

The problem is that these traditional gender stereotypes operate in virtually all organizations — including law firms — to slow, obstruct and block women’s progress up the career ladder. They do this by fostering five distinct sorts of biases against women:

  1. negative biases
  2. benevolent biases
  3. agentic biases
  4. self-limiting biases, and
  5. motherhood biases.

In our previous writings, we have discussed these five types of bias and how they operate to discriminate against women in the workplace. In the remainder of this post, however, we focus exclusively on the negative biases and how they adversely affect women’s career advancement.

A person holds negative stereotypes about women if he or she thinks a woman — simply because she is a woman — is (or should be) warm, pleasant and likable, but not particularly forceful, competent, or suited for high-pressure, competitive leadership tasks. A person holding such negative stereotypes will (at least initially) consistently judge the women he or she works with as less talented, less suited for challenging assignments, and less worthwhile to advise, supervise or sponsor than the men.

Andrea S. Kramer & Alton B. Harris will be discussing this subject in greater detail in an upcoming webinar, “Breaking Through Bias 2016: Gender Stereotypes in the Legal Profession” on January 19. In the webinar, they will be discussing their upcoming book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, scheduled to be published in mid-May. You can also go to their website,, and sign up to receive future blog posts on gender, career advancement and stereotype bias.

Such a person is not necessarily intentionally hostile to women or even conscious that he or she is acting in discriminatory ways toward women. But recent psychological and sociological studies leave no doubt that almost all of us, to one degree or another, operate with implicit gender biases. For example, a recent study revealed that approximately 75% of people think “men” when they hear career-related words such as business, profession and work, but think “women” when they hear domestic-related words such as family, household and caregiving. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of people associate men with leader-related roles such as boss, CEO and director; while they associate women with aide-related roles such as assistant, attendant and secretary.

When the gatekeepers to women’s career advancement — their supervisors, senior managers, and the people in the C-suites of their organizations — hold negative gender stereotypes, they (at least initially) will have lower expectations about women’s performance capability and potential than about those of comparably situated men. Their thinking will go something like, “These jobs require strong agentic characteristics, and women — simply because they are women — don’t have those characteristics.”

Never mind what a particular woman’s actual characteristics might be. These negative stereotypes — “women are not as good as men at power, competition and leadership” — operate to limit and otherwise obstruct women’s career advancement. They obscure their actual talents, ambition and potential. It is as though the stereotypes are (unconsciously) whispering to us, “Damn reality, this is what you should believe about that woman’s abilities.”

There are many actions that can be done at the corporate level to minimize the hurtful effects of negative gender stereotypes. For example, the gatekeepers to women’s career advancement can be sensitized to these stereotypes; women can learn to communicate in ways that avoid or overcome them; and organizations can adopt policies that combat their operation.

In future blog posts on this site, we will be examining those actions and how best law firms and other organizations can utilize them to break down these harmful stereotypes.