How to get the promotion you deserve
January 22, 2018
Managing your career
January 24, 2018

Are stereotypes impacting your career and work decisions?

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We are all bias, it’s the way the brain works but just knowing that won’t stop you making decisions based on stereotypes and the implicit associations which attach to them.


This article also contains elements of a quiz which helps you to reflect on your own beliefs about stereotypes, lays out how they work and how they may be impacting your own career choices. We have included some of the ideas at the end about what you can do and of course you can also look at the sample module from our Brain-savvy Woman’s Career Management Programme which will help you to move from awareness to action. The programme isn’t just about issues women face but covers topics like building an high performing team, gaining sponsors and being influential.

How stereotypes work

No one makes decisions in a vacuum, all decisions are influenced by the beliefs, values and the expectations we have acquired as we grow-up and experience life. These determine what it is OK to do and what it’s definitely not OK to do. And something like 80% of our behaviour is based on these unconscious biases, beliefs and associations, rather than being intentional rational action.  Research studies show when we are with people who are important to us, like work colleagues or your boss you are more likely to behave in a way consistent with established stereotypes.

We also judge our own actions based on the stereotypes we have absorbed, and these underlying beliefs have repercussions in the workplace. They impact your career decisions, how you manage your team, who you go to for advice and even how well you get on with colleagues and clients.

This quiz uses some of the research we cover in our Brain-savvy Woman Career Management programme to help you become more aware of the many ways unconscious bias based on gender can play out.

Check your answers as you read through the article. We have then provided a few suggestions for how you can notice and tackle your own unconscious bias.

  1. What are the most important attributes for career success and a better salary?

a. A high IQ

b. To be above average height and attractiveness

c. A college degree.

Answer b) If you want to be successful in your career a major attribute is to be good looking and tall! Only 14.5% of men in America can claim to have this attribute; yet, nearly 60% of Fortune 500 company CEOs do according to The Tall Book by Arianne Cohen – only 14.5% of American men stand over six foot tall;

One study concludes that every inch of additional height relates to a corresponding annual salary gap of £500 in favour of the tall.

And on attractiveness economists have found that the best-looking one third of the population makes 12% more than least attractive individuals. In Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, Daniel Hamermesh claims that this bias can, over a lifetime, amount to an earnings gap of $250,000.

  1. Stereotypes are strong but if you are aware and have reasonable emotional intelligence you can overcome them. Which of these statements do you believe are true?

a. Most people can be themselves at work unhindered by stereotypical expectations

b. Stereotypes are an excuse made up by pop science to explain weak behaviour

c. Being authentic means you are yourself rather than following stereotypical behaviour

d. Stereotypes and the implicit expectations associated with them largely determine the way men and women behave at work.

Answer d. Stereotypes and the implicit expectations associated with them largely determine the way man and women behave at work.


Unconscious bias limits your career prospects, among other things. The first step to dealing with this is an awareness of the problem. But it won’t solve the problem. The nature of our cognition and thinking processes means we are vulnerable to various unconscious biases which determine what we have implicitly learn as the ‘correct behaviour’. All of us may be subjected to them. For example, a study by Anne M. Koenig and Alice H. Eagly at NorthWestern University showed that men under-performed on social sensitivity tests (decoding nonverbal cues, for example) when they were told that the test assessed social sensitivity (a stereotypical feminine attribute). Men who were told that the test assessed information processing did not under-perform. The first group were living up to the stereotype that men perform poorly at such tests. “Real men don’t do empathy”


Being aware of our own unconscious bias can help. However, prevention requires motivation. Using behavioural design techniques which nudge he brain into acting in the ‘right’ way are a means of overcoming these biases. Things like anonymized recruitment processes, designing processes to direct decision-making, reverse mentorship, exposure to counter stereotypes and training can also help.


  1. A university research team sent 2 CV’s of applicants for the role of laboratory manager to 127 male and female professors. Both (fictional) candidates were white, aged 22 and had identical grades and comparable references. Who got the job?

a. ‘John’ was more likely to be hired than ‘Jennifer’ and at a starting salary of $4,000 more.

b. ‘Jennifer’ was more likely to be hired than ‘John’ and at a starting salary of $4,000 more.

c. Both ‘John’ and ‘Jennifer’ were equally likely to be hired and at equal starting salaries.

Answer a) ‘John’ was more likely to be hired than ‘Jennifer’ and at a starting salary of $4,000 more. According to the Princeton University study of 2012 (and several studies which have replicated this finding), the fictional ‘John’ was more likely to be hired, despite having otherwise identical characteristics to the fictional ‘Jennifer’ – an example of how gender biases can favour males.

  1. Which of the following statements most accurately describes how gender biases are formed?

a. Biases are formed through socialisation, for example the gender-specific toys you’re given as a child.

b. Biases are formed through the labels assigned to individuals, for example discouraging only little girls from being “bossy”.

c. Biases are formed through media exposure, for example women playing passive roles, doing the house, work being flustered in challenging situations, in cartoons, soap operas, newspapers and movies.

d. Biases are formed through personal experiences of how those around us behave.

Answer All.  They’re all true! Gender biases can be formed at a very early age through a whole variety of factors. See the Explore Further section of our book and career management programme Brain-Savvy Woman for both serious and amusing examples.

  1. Hiring the candidate who has the best ‘fit’, perhaps because they share the same values and beliefs and express similar views is what most companies seek when recruiting. And yet companies also seek diversity. Are the two compatible?

a. yes of course companies can’t run effectively without people who share their values, that’s got to be more important that diversity

b. Diversity is a competitive edge there is now enough data that people who have different ways of thinking (beliefs) and experience help organisations perform better

c. Of course we want diversity but we also want people who are like us. How else can a company pull together?

d. To achieve both a diverse and an inclusive culture we need to get used to feeling uncomfortable and hire people who challenge how we normally think and behave.


Answer d. To achieve both a diverse and an inclusive culture we need to get used to feeling uncomfortable and hire people who challenge how we normally think and behave.

Affinity (‘like me’) bias is the factor at play when you or your company hire for fit. ‘Hiring in your own image’ can have a long-lasting effect: it can mean that you’re likely to build a stronger relationship with that particular individual, which can ultimately lead to that person receiving more stretch assignments, better support of their career or increased visibility across the organisation.

But it can also mean you and the company are missing out on diversity of thinking and experience.

This means we have to overcome our brain’s natural functioning. Our brain seeks to predict what will happen and when someone challenges your expectations it will send an error message, a mild threat response. We have to overcome this and keep engaged to gain the benefits of diversity.

  1. If you perceive a colleague on a flexible working scheme as lazy or work shy, it’s not unconscious bias if later they do indeed shirk some responsibilities.

a. True

b. False

Answer b) It’s false. These types of prejudices become self-perpetuating through ‘confirmation bias’, whereby we seek evidence to confirm that our original perception was correct. If you have an inherent belief that employees on flexible work schemes are less committed than those working traditional hours, you may start to develop perceptions of someone working flexibly which confirm that belief. And that can include how you view your own career. ” I’m working flexibly so can’t expect to be promoted for the next few years.”

  1. If a new mum returns to work, it’s natural to offer her an easy ride for the first year or so and shield her from assignments which require travel and time away from her family. This isn’t bias its kindness.


a. I agree we all need a break in that first hectic year

b. It may be kind but it’s still bias

c. This should be the woman’s decision not her manager’s or the company

d. This is so condescending to women

Answer b, c and d are all correct and to some extend so is a. if this is done with the explicit agreement of the woman.  This is actually a classic example of ‘benevolence bias’. A new mum might be discounted for attendance at an overseas conference or project requiring travel for example, in order to spare her the added stress – a conscious decision underpinned by a plethora of unconscious assumptions about motherhood, and which may ultimately harm her career. In our research, we were given this example time and time again by bewildered Mum’s who were frustrated by the impact this bias was having on their career. They found it hard to challenge these types of decisions because they realised they were made from kindness. And no amount of rational discussion was helping their organisation, or manager make different decisions.

  1. The differences in the way men and women work are a result of their brain development and inherent differences in the structure and functioning of the brain.

a. True

b. False

Answer b) False. Janet Hyde, University of Wisconsin-Madison an authority on gender differences, reviewed 46 meta-analyses that had been conducted on psychological gender differences between men and women from 1984 to 2004. (A meta-analysis examines the results from a large number of individual studies and averages their effects to get the closest approximation of the true effect.) Hyde’s review spanned studies looking at differences in cognitive abilities, communication, personality traits, measures of well-being, motor skills, and moral reasoning.

She found that 78% of the studies in her sample revealed little to no difference in these measures between men and women; this supports her ‘gender similarities hypothesis’, which states that men and women are far more similar than they are different. The only large differences she found related to girls being better than boys in spelling and language, and testing higher than boys on the personality variable of agreeableness/tendermindedness; boys tested higher than girls on motor performance, certain measures of sexuality (masturbation, casual attitudes about sex), and aggression. So there are some gender differences, but most are small to non-existent.

  1. In most of the Western business world there are a small number of women in senior leadership roles — 7 female CEO’s in the UK FSTE 100 and 32 woman in the Fortune 500 (6.4%) in 2017. Why is this?


a. Women’s brains developed to be carers and collaborators not leaders.

b. Most women don’t want the role of CEO, they have other responsibilities, like home and family which take a higher priority

c. Women lack the fundamental skills to be leaders and this is one reason for the small number of CEO’s and senior female leaders across most organisations globally

d. The current stereotypes of leaders are masculine and work against women. until these change neither will the figures.

Answer d. This is our view, espoused in our book Brian-savvy Wo+man and in our career management programme. Numerous studies contradict the idea that women are biologically predisposed to lower levels of leadership. One 2014 meta-analysis by Samantha Paustian-Underdahl and colleagues of 95 studies found that female leaders tend to be rated by others as significantly more effective than male leaders, and this effect is stronger after 1996. (On the flip side, men rated themselves as significantly better leaders than women, particularly before 1982.) But this data does tell us something about the impact of gender roles (as women tend to rate themselves as less effective leaders) and societal changes (since the effects are diminishing over time).


  1. The prevailing belief is that one of the main reasons for the gender pay gap (currently around 20% in most Western countries) is that women don’t ask for or negotiate well for pay increases. What is your belief?


a. Women don’t ask for pay raises and that’s why there is a gender pay gap. It’s their own fault or at least they bear some responsibility.

b. It’s a combination of factors some to do with women and some unscrupulous companies

c. Women are being discriminated against on pay


Answer c. Whilst again you can point to a combination of factors, for example, there is evidence women negotiate in a different way to men, negotiating social acceptance as well as reward. But new research suggests c is the correct answer. Women are being discriminated against on pay is actually what is going on. At least in Australia. In research carried out in 2017 by Cass Business School in London, the University of Warwick, and the University of Wisconsin analysis of data from 4600 workers based in Australia, revealed women asked for pay rises as often as men did, but they were 25% less likely to get it.


The report comes to the stark conclusion that “women do ask but they do not get.” One of the researcher’s Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics and behavioural science at Warwick University says, “We were expecting to find evidence for this old theory that women are less pushy than men. But in asking for pay raises the women and the men were equal.”  That can only mean one thing, in Oswald’s view. In the workplace, if women are asking for more money at the same rate as men, but aren’t getting it, “there is discrimination.” When the researchers of the study broke down the data by age, they found that younger women successfully negotiated raises as often as young men did. In particular, women under the age of 40 managed to negotiate for higher pay which might mean the gender pay gap becomes a thing of the past as these savvy negotiators progress their careers.


But rather than wait for these young women to reach the top the 2017 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey/ suggests change needs to happen at the company level. Many women are already “leaning in” the study says.  So, what needs changing is the overall context of pay decisions for women.


  1. 30% of women in our Gender in the Workplace survey felt they had been unequally treated at work. Although over 50% had experience belittling jokes. Does this figure surprise you?


a. No not really gender inequality is largely hype stirred up by news reporters to sell papers.

b. Not really women don’t like to focus on what is really happening

c. Not really my company has this issue sorted

d. I’m really surprised look at the numbers of women in senior management!

e. I am dismayed but not surprised we have just got used to the status quo

Answer e. Whilst there are elements of truth in some of the other statements the 2017 McKinsey /Leanin.Org study of Women in the Workplace found women experience a workplace skewed in favour of men. On average, women are promoted at a lower rate than men. The biggest gender gap is at the first step up to manager: entry-level women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the pipeline as a whole. If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the very top of organisations (senior vice president and C-suite levels in the USA Directors and above in the UK) would more than double. And the disparity in promotions is not for lack of desire to advance. Women are just as interested in being promoted as men, and they ask for promotions at comparable rates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are less optimistic about their prospects. The women who aspire to be a top executive are significantly less likely to think they’ll become one than men with the same aspiration. Women of colour, the study found, particularly black women, face even greater challenges. 

  1. Women in the workplace get mixed reviews, sometimes you read about how nice they are and that’s holding them back, you also read about women who have made it refusing to give a helping hand to others. What’s your belief?


a. Women are nicer than men, more thoughtful, better team players and generally more collaborative.

b. Many women at the top are not nice, they have become more like men to make it, aggressive and hard nosed

c. Your get good and bad in each gender

Answer  all are true. Psychology says women are wonderful! You may be surprised to learn that research suggests that we consistently prefer women over men and mothers over fathers implicitly. This is known by the term, first used by Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic in 1994, as  the WAW (“women-are-wonderful”) effect. By this they meant women are perceived positively on the whole as they are stereotyped as supportive, nice and gentle. In other words, warm.


This effect, however, disappears, and even reverses, the moment women step in to the business world or otherwise challenge stereotypical expectations. For example, people implicitly and explicitly prefer male to female leaders and non-feminist women to feminists. And research by Stefanie Johnson an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business found that female students implicitly prefer housewives over businesswomen. The implicit pro-female preference also reverses in men when they expect to interact with a superior woman as opposed to an equal or subordinate one.


What did you discover?

Obviously with any quiz like his there is evidence that can confirm or deny the statements, myths and even academic research studies. The issue with the gender agenda is, many writers have an agenda, and that includes us. We try to provide the research that supports or contradicts the prevailing myths and working assumptions used in most organisations. At the end of the day you must make up your own mind based on what you read and study.

Much of the writing about gender subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) blames women. Women just need to change to be successful in a (male) world.

That’s not our view. We do think that forewarned is forearmed and tooled-up is sensible.  But we also want to see workplaces changed for the better, so that it’s not always down to individual women to adapt for survival. And our aim is to help you to become the kind of leaders who will be at the forefront of those changes.

But because this programme focuses on neurological and psychological insights, rather than political campaigning, we’ll be looking at how the beliefs about women and their confidence and competence (or myths, or partial truths) that frame our reality, stack up against the research. And we’ll look at the practical steps we all can take to address the current beliefs.

This programme is designed to equip you to thrive in the workplace whatever your experience: from no bias (or at least none that you’ve noticed) to outright discrimination that means you’re never going to get to where you want without action.

The questions above are designed to gain insight, to make you think about your own automatic responses, behaviour and decisions. We did this to help you identify your own beliefs which match the stereotype and which may not be serving you well in how you manage your career.

If this quiz has thrown up some surprises for you, you’re not alone. Follow it up by becoming even more aware of unconscious bias and how they maybe impacting your career. We have lots of resources in our Brain-savvy Woman Career Management programme and our free webinars, details at

Stay mindful of your communication and how unconscious bias can creep into the job descriptions you write as a hiring manager, how you sift through CV, and how you speak to and about others whose backgrounds are different to your own. And most of all slow down your decision-making about your own career, reflect on the assumptions you are making and the stereotypical behaviour you may be using.





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