Stop protecting women from challenging work
A 2016 poll by the pew research centre suggests that more than half of men think sexism is a thing of the past. In contrast, only about one-third of women agree. One reason for the disagreement may stem from misunderstanding about the kinds of behaviour that constitute sexism. It primarily manifests itself in two ways.
First, much like the way anxious new parents shield their children from potentially harmful situation, managers often see women as being in need of protection, so they limit their exposure to risky or challenging work. For example, surveys of men and women in the oil and gas and health care industries show that women received fewer challenging developmental work opportunities than men. Both men and women, however, reported comparable levels of interest in engaging in these assignments. Follow-up experiments confirmed that managers who engage in benevolent sexism protected women from challenging assignments and instead gave the work to men. While this may have seemed nice on the surface, these behaviours actually made it more difficult for women to advance.
Second, women are less likely to get constructive criticism and more likely to unsolicited offers for help. But although, well-intentioned, such attempts to protect or coddle women can undermine their self-confidence. In the earlier-mentioned survey, supervisors gave female managers less negative feedback than their male counterpart. But constructive criticism has been found to be essential for increased performance and learning.
In another experiment, fake teammates told some undergraduate participants who were working on a task, “let me help you with this. I know this kind of thing can be hard for some girl/guys.” Both male and female participants who were treated in this “benevolent” manner felt worse about their own ability than participants who were not helped. A separate survey of working adults reported in the same paper confirmed these findings. This type of patronizing yet seemingly positive behaviour undermines self-efficacy: it is assumptive (rather than requested), it implies that its recipients is depend on the provider of support. Importantly, women are more likely to be the recipients of this type of unwanted help and therefore are more likely to suffer its negative consequences.
Yet many of these problem have clear solutions. Attempts to support women at work may be most effective when they occur in response to a request, when they enable rather than restrict autonomy, and when they are negotiated through discussion. For example, rather than assuming that a woman would say no to an assignment involving travel, just ask her. Instead of telling a woman she should take an extended maternity leave, inquire as to how long she would like to take. When attempting to support female employees, managers should think carefully about how and why they are motivated to do so, whether they would support a male employee in the same manner, and what implicit message their behaviour is sending to the woman.
Does this mean chivalry is dead? No. all people like to be treated with courtesy and respect. But it does mean that some behaviour-those that are patronizing, overly protective, and unsolicited-can be harmful.
1. Eden B. King- Benevolent sexism at work: gender differences in the distribution of challenging developmental experiences.
2. Peter glick and Susan T. Fiske- An Ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complimentary justification for gender inquality