Self-confidence is an important part of career success. It can motivate goal setting, and help in salary and promotion negotiations. Research on confidence in the workplace finds a gap in men and women’s confidence, with men being more likely to be overconfident, and women more likely to be under-confident in their skills and performance. This study addresses the confidence gap by exploring the role of gender blindness. In a series of experimental and survey studies, the authors find that when efforts are made to downplay gender differences, women’s confidence and willingness to take action increases. In effect, gender blindness can improve women’s confidence without requiring women to change their behaviour.
Most research aiming to redress women’s workplace confidence has focused on changing women’s behaviour, or on reframing valued workplace attributes to more closely align with stereotypical gender differences. For example, by framing the male-attributed art of negotiation as a communal task and thus, more in line with feminine attributes. Such solutions, however, place the burden for change on women and implicitly suggest that women’s own behaviour is the source of their unequal treatment, rather than workplace cultures that reinforce masculine-attributed traits over feminine-attributed ones. Or, they limit women’s feelings of confidence to contexts that align with attributes that are stereotypically defined as feminine (for example, communalism or caring) and fall short of offering solutions to overcoming the confidence gap in male-dominated occupational contexts. The present study examines gender-blindness as a locus of change.
Gender-blindness aims to downplay difference and emphasize similarities between men and women.
The authors point out that in some contexts it can be beneficial to highlight differences between groups, for example, by promoting positive perceptions of racial diversity. However, the positive effects of highlighting difference are limited to those situations where attempts are made to replace negative stereotypical differences, as in the case of promoting racial and ethnic multiculturalism.
In the case of gender difference, however, most stereotypical differences between men and women are positive and readily embraced by both men and women. But the value attributed to such differences varies by social context. Attributes associated with masculinity, such as agency, assertiveness, and risk-taking, are more valued in the workplace while attributes associated with femininity, such as communality and compassion, are valued in the home or are limited to a small number of female-dominated occupational contexts. The authors argue that for women working in masculine-dominated fields, gender blindness may be the more effective strategy for improving women’s self-confidence. Through a series of experimental and survey studies, the authors test the effect of gender difference versus gender blindness on self-confidence.
Findings: The results are summarized below
- 163 women were surveyed and given one of two conditions: one group was asked to make a list of similarities between men and women, while the other group was asked to make a list of differences. Upon completing their lists, they were asked whether they believed the differences or similarities compromised their ability to be effective leaders in the workplace. Those who were tasked with outlining gender differences, such as the tendency to perceive men as having more agency, were more likely to report feeling undermined their ability to be effective leaders than those who were tasked with outlining similarities between men and women.
- 712 students in a male-dominated MBA program were surveyed about their gender ideologies (for example, about the extent to which they believe that differences between men and women should be acknowledged and celebrated), as well as about their confidence levels. They were then assigned an activity in which they assumed the role of a racing team manager who decides whether to race (and potentially win a large endorsement) or not race (because of an engine failure). Racing in this activity represented the riskier, action-based choice. Women who reported believing in gender-blindness were more likely to choose the option of taking action.
- In a survey of 115 women, participants were asked to read either an article about the benefits of differences between men and women, or an article about the merits of the similarities between men and women. The third group of women was given an article about a recycling program in order to provide a baseline measure of workplace confidence. They were then asked questions about how confident they felt in their place of work. Women primed with gender-blindness (those who had read the article highlighting the similarities between men and women) felt more confident. In a related study of 132 women, this effect was found to be stronger for those who reported working in male-dominated work environments.
- In another similar study of 126 female managers, exposure to gender-blindness led to increased identification with agentic traits (such as assertiveness and leadership), more confidence, and increased action-taking (measured in this instance through a series of role-playing scenarios such as playing blackjack and speaking in a debate).
This article provides evidence that gender-blindness can increase women’s workplace confidence and feelings of agency.
- Downplaying difference – In order to promote women’s confidence, especially in male-dominated work environments, management, and HR personnel can downplay gender differences. This has the added benefit of making workplace cultures more accommodating for those who identify outside of the male/female gender binary. This can be done in a wide variety of ways such as: avoiding the unnecessary use of gendered language in corporate correspondence, and using the term “people” instead of men and women; providing access to gender-inclusive bathrooms; ensuring that tasks are distributed fairly and evenly between male and female employees; and avoiding gender-essentializing stereotypes in written communication and workplace activities (for instance, avoiding gendered team-building activities where men play golf and women go to the spa, or through associating the colour pink with women, and blue with men).
- Modeling “feminine” attributes – In addition to promoting gender blindness or downplaying gender differences in male-dominated workplace environments, those in leadership positions can model attributes that deviate from those deemed stereotypically masculine, such as adopting a communal leadership style and modeling empathy, as a way of broadening the scope of attributes that are valued and rewarded in organizational contexts.
What “blindness” to gender differences helps women see and so: Implications for confidence, agency, and action in male-dominated environments
Ashley E. Martin and Katherine W. Phillips
Columbia Business School
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Research brief prepared by
Kim de Laat