What image comes to our minds when we think of a firefighter, construction worker, or a pilot? Often, we end up picturing a man in those professions rather than a woman. People perceive traits that are associated with success in those professions as more consistent with traits stereotypically possessed by men[i], such as confidence, assertiveness, and influenceability. These assumptions often make it difficult for people to see women as equally successful in those professions as men.
In a 2020 study, Felix Danbold and Corinne Bendersky show that this disadvantage for women can be minimized by balancing prototypes about these careers in a way that highlights traits associated with women without devaluing traits associated with men. They use the context of fire service to show that by emphasizing the value of compassion (stereotypically associated with women) along with strength (stereotypically associated with men), they were able to create a more balanced firefighter prototype, simultaneously increasing people’s perceived ability of women firefighters and decreasing their opposition to women in the fire service.
…by emphasizing the value of compassion (stereotypically associated with women) along with strength (stereotypically associated with men), they were able to create a more balanced firefighter prototype
The authors demonstrated this through an experiment with active duty fire fighters who were assigned to one of three conditions: 1) they were informed that the three key traits of a successful firefighter, in order of importance, are compassion, team orientation, and physical strength, 2) they were told of the same three key traits but in reverse order, with physical strength as the most important, or 3) they were in a control condition with focus on the neutral trait of team orientation. These conditions enabled the researchers to effectively demonstrate how professional prototypes can be balanced by inverting prototypes (condition 1) to improve how women are perceived in men-dominated professions.
While past research has extensively documented the challenges experienced by women when they are measured against a masculine prototype, the power of simply balancing prototypes to counter this disadvantage for women is a pivotal finding that was only possible for the authors after they spent time in the field to learn the nuances of how the firefighter prototype was configured in the first place.
As Danbold, Assistant Professor at University College London School of Management, notes, “Spending time with firefighters, we realized that the metrics for success in the fire service were routinely devaluing stereotypically feminine traits, leading to an association between being a firefighter and being a man. This led women firefighters to face a perpetual sense of exclusion and skepticism. In an experimental intervention, emphasizing the value of legitimately important and stereotypically feminine traits, without devaluing the importance of stereotypically masculine ones, helped to reduce this association between being a firefighter and being a man.”
Emphasizing the value of legitimately important and stereotypically feminine traits…helped to reduce this association between being a firefighter and being a man.
A key reason why the authors believe balancing prototypes worked so well is because the firefighters agreed on the importance of stereotypically feminine traits, such as compassion, in their work, but routinely overlooked these traits in their evaluations of who had the potential to succeed in their profession. The intervention, therefore, did not change firefighters’ fundamental beliefs, but prompted them to recognize what they already believe is true. This, as Danbold put it, “allowed them to break out of the reductive thinking that associates being a firefighter with being a man.”
The success of this intervention is underscored even more when paired with the finding that the increase in women’s perceived ability and decrease in opposition to women in the fire service comes without any threat to men firefighters, or without diminishing clarity around what it means to be a successful firefighter. That is, balancing prototypes did not lead men to feel concerned about losing their own status and did not introduce ambiguity around the role of a firefighter. The intervention thus provided a way to improve outcomes for women without threatening how men feel in the organization.
In order to effectively balance prototypes in other contexts, policymakers need to take time to understand the prototype of a profession and who is devalued. Danbold suggests auditing evaluation criteria to assess if more weight is being put on criteria that are more strongly associated with men than women, and doing this with other forms of visible and invisible identities like race, age, and disability.
This research adds to the recent stream of literature pushing for a move away from “fix-the-women” mindset to a “fix-the-institution” framework that avoids trying to get women to change to fit into systems that weren’t built for them. Danbold urges policy makers to shift the onus of change from women and reflect on the prototypes that surround them, then change them in ways that reduce systems of disadvantage.
 Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological review, 109(3), 573.
Research brief prepared by: