The University of St. Thomas

September, 2011

Gender Disparities in Leadership in the Professions: The Role of Stereotype Threat

Published on: Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

© Verna E. Monson, Ph.D.
Research Fellow
Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions

The following is Part 4 of a four-part series that offers a preview of the Holloran Center’s research on professionalism in law.

Part 4. Gender Disparities in Leadership in the Professions: The Role of Stereotype Threat

With the Holloran Center sponsoring or co-sponsoring two programs this fall related to women and the judicial process (co-sponsored with the Infinity Project, on October 13th), and women and leadership in law and business (on November 10th, a blog about gender and disparities in business and in law is in order. In Part 1 and 2 of this blog series, I discussed our general research approach and philosophy, and in Part 3, one theme related to law firm culture and mentoring. Part 4 highlights research out of Stanford University on the phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” I suggest that stereotype threat is an important factor in the continuing challenge to reduce gender disparity in law firms and business, and that awareness of disparities in society is part of professionalism.

Gender and racial disparities in the upper echelons of law firms and business is a persistent issue that is both pragmatic and ethical. As client bases diversify, increasing diversity among law firms is a continuing priority for the ABA, Fortune 100 companies, and law firms. The role of stereotyping and bias is cited as an important factor in limiting opportunities for advancement in the firm or the corporation.[1] A study published last October in Psychological Science,[2] sheds light on a phenomenon called stereotype threat, and how it might cause women to “play it safe” by effectively taking themselves out of the running for leadership positions that are high risk and high reward.

Stereotype threat comes into play when one is made aware of negative and limiting ideas about one’s group. For example, a common stereotype exists that women are less capable in logical reasoning and math. For women made aware of that negative stereotype, the thought process involved with suppressing it and managing the anxiety over fears about conforming to this stereotype “uses up” cognitive resources, and thus results in declines in performance on cognitive tasks such as tests or problem solving – what research psychologists Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele at Stanford call “ego depletion.”[3] For women in law or business, stereotypes about their “style” of carrying out their job duties — e.g., notions that women are naturally more collaborative and caring in carrying out job duties – can be used against them when the job requires a more aggressive approach. In turn, this might explain why women are more likely to leave lucrative executive positions before reaching upper management or partner status.[4]

The Stanford researchers conducted an experiment involving financial decision making. In one condition, men and women were made aware of a stereotype that women do not perform as well as men on tests of math and logical reasoning and then asked to solve math equations. In a second condition, the group performed a series of puzzle problems without mention of any stereotype. Next, both groups played a series of 12 lotteries where there would be a chance to win (or lose) a nominal amount of cash. In the stereotype-aware condition, women were significantly more likely to reject lotteries, thus limiting their losses, as well as their rewards. In other words, when a negative stereotype about women was made known, women played it safe. Interestingly, men in the stereotype-aware condition took even greater risks. But in the non-stereotype condition, there were no differences in risk taking.

How might this effect be a factor in limiting the career potential for women lawyers or managers?  For women lawyers and managers entering the workforce, there are multiple signals that might prime different stereotypes – e.g., not being given substantive cases or projects or conversely, being excessively praised for minor accomplishments[5]. In turn, these might trigger stereotype threat, and for some women, might also become the deciding factor in leaving a firm with higher potential for great rewards, for a smaller firm or public agency with less potential for reward, but also, less potential for failure or loss. The literature on mentoring in firms unambiguously concludes that in order to retain women, and in particular women of color, mentors play a critical role.

How can new lawyers or managers know when stereotype threat might be a factor that could derail them?  Let’s look at a brief overview of the stereotypes about women in law and business that could trigger the effect.  It’s been popular to hear about research finding that women have different leadership or communication “styles” – typically, being more collaborative or inclusive. So would adopting a more nurturing style of leadership help advance their careers?   A 1995 ABA Commission on Women in the Profession report noted that women lawyers are “insufficiently aggressive, uncomfortably forthright, too emotional, or not as serious as men about their careers.”[6] Years later, a 2003 hearing by the Commission found no evidence that this stereotype had lessened, with a bar association president testifying that women lawyers continue to be viewed as “too bossy, too aggressive, not aggressive enough, too emotional, or too strident.”[7]

In a landmark case of employment discrimination, Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse,[8] management consultant Ann Hopkins sued her employer after failing to make partner after being told that she was “overly aggressive, unduly harsh, difficulty to work with, and impatient with staff.”[9] Following an initial court ruling in favor of Hopkins, and years of appeals, the Supreme Court upheld lower courts’ decisions, stating that “An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not” (p. 251).

But this was 20 years ago. Does such a Catch-22 still exist, in which the stereotype of women as “nurturing leaders” comes head to head with the demands for lawyers or managers who can be tough and aggressive when the job might demand it? For women in law, business, and the professions, Elena Kagan’s appointment to the Supreme Court is a definite mark of progress, but it’s harder to be optimistic about women advancing into upper leadership in other realms of law and business. Although women now comprise 31 percent of all attorneys, the proportion of law firm partners is significantly lower, at 18 percent, according to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession 2010 report. According to a 2009 Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies, gender disparities are even greater in business. Of executive officer positions, only 13.5 percent were women. In top earning positions, the percentage drops to 6 percent. Women held only 15 percent of board positions and a full one third of companies had no women executive officers. Similar disparities in economic earning potential exist among both lawyers and women in business. Whether or not stereotype threat is a causal factor in these disparities is an empirical question. The Carr and Steele study was an experiment with undergraduate students. Clearly, field studies examining the phenomenon in law schools, law firms, and business need to take place to answer these questions definitively.

Until that can happen, I think we need to take a stance that stereotyping and bias are ethically wrong, and that part of professionalism should be awareness of these phenomenon. Through awareness, the underlying ethical issues that may be created by stereotyping can begin to be addressed. The highest level of professionalism should include awareness of perceptual barriers that prevent us for seeing ethical issues.

What are implications for education in the professions and organizational development in law firms and business? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Law and business schools should consider integrating content about stereotyping and bias in courses beyond professional responsibility, employment law, or human resources courses. Bringing in content experts from social sciences and education to the strategic or curriculum planning processes to audit syllabi or conduct a needs assessment is a start.
  2. Awareness about the nature of gender differences can be expanded. Let’s be clear:  Both men and women can be caring, expressive, and creative. Both men and women can be strategic, direct, linear, and aggressive when the role requires it.
  3. Mentors matter – in professions education and in one’s career. For young associates or managers, find someone you can talk with openly about feelings of “not fitting in” or of not being given meaningful cases or projects.
  4. Negative stereotypes are on a spectrum of both conscious and unconsciously held biases that can lead to discrimination or harassment on an individual level. In the opinion of Richard Banks, Professor of Law at Stanford University, this has led to a plethora of diversity training seminars aimed at changing individual attitudes, [10] with questionable effectiveness.  But change that is more systemic and policy-based may have more impact. For example, change aimed at policy reform on implementing zero-tolerance policies on discrimination or harassment may ultimately have greater impact on behavior and organizational climate.[11]

[1] ABA

[2] Priyanka B. Carr and Claude M. Steele, Stereotype Threat Affects Financial Decision Making, Psychological Science OnlineFirst, XX(X) 1-6.

[3] Id.

[4] ABA

[5] Research on bias and stereotyping found that bias can work in a seemingly positive, innocuous sense, called

[6]Commission on Women in the Profession, American Bar Association, Women in the Law: A Look at the Numbers, November 1995.

[7] Id., at 5.

[8] Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).

[9] Ann Hopkins, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins:  A Personal Account of a Sexual Discrimination Plaintiff, 357-415, Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal, Vol. 22, 2005.

[10] R. Richard Banks, (How) Does Unconscious Bias Matter?: Law, Politics, and Racial Inequality, 58 Emory L.J. 1053, 2009.

[11] Id.