Sexism in the Classroom and Workplace

Zack’s perspective

I’m not sexist. At least, I really don’t mean to be. Is it wrong for me to open a door for a female colleague at work? I mean, I know I’m treating her different, but I’m trying to be a proper gentleman, that’s ok, isn’t it?

Last Thursday, the WSA hosted Professors Amy Cuddy and Michael Norton for a great session to discuss Gender Stereotypes and Sexism in the Classroom and Workplace and its effects.

First off, Professor Cuddy wanted to make sure that everyone understood that even in our modern era sexism is real. It is a unique and pernicious form of discrimination because it isn’t always overt. If I disliked students at Yale, I could probably avoid most of them just by staying in Cambridge. When I met them at a football game, I could yell things at them, like, “FALE!” However, generally I wouldn’t be forced to associate with them. But with men and women it’s different. For nearly all of human history men and women have mixed and associated with each other in families and clans. And we do depend on each other, I mean, we are supposed to– the future of all humanity depends on it! It very well may be this closeness that makes sexism such a tough issue. My concepts of “gentlemanly behavior” are in fact a form of patronizing sexism and can be damaging in the wrong context.

Women are as motivated as men to become CEOs and top the organizational charts and according to the annual review data studied, they are as qualified (and often more so) as men on all the relevant dimensions. So why do women only make up 3% of the CEOs of fortune 500 companies? Sexism. Professor Cuddy recommended the article, Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership, HBR, Sept 2007 for more insight, but this quote sums it up neatly: “In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage.” When decisions should be based on merit, often subtle subconscious biases about roles of women and men creep into the process.

Next, Professor Norton suggested that even well intentioned people are part of the problem. Both men and women can be sexist and have preconceived notions about how to treat each other. And what’s more discouraging is that even once we are made aware of our biases, we still act based on our sub-conscious stereotypes. Research has shown that there is an inverse relationship between perceptions of a person’s warmth and their competence. If you meet someone who is kind and warm, you might assume they are less competent, while someone who is colder and calculating gets your respect as being more competent.

So what’s to be done? Cuddy and Norton agree that allowing people to see and expose both warmth and competence goes a long way to helping us appreciate each other outside of stereotypes. For instance, it helps to have MBA students assigned to diverse and mixed gender teams that work together on specific tasks. You start to focus on each others’ strengths and personalities rather than their gender identity.

Additionally, Professor Cuddy’s research on Power Poses can help people who are in low power situations, like a job interview or a classroom discussion, to feel more confident and participate more courageously. Not that she recommends you kick your feet up on your desk, or worse, on the interviewers desk, but take the time to prepare prior to the situation with appropriate power poses that will elevate the right hormones that will make you feel like a strong leader.

In the end, I’m not sure if I have a clear answer on when I should be a gentleman, or just hold the door open for everyone. But I certainly am far more aware of the challenges women face here at HBS and in the workplace and I hope by being more aware, I’ll be less sexist.

Suchita’s Perspective

Last week I attended a WSA organized lecture by Prof Amy Cuddy and Prof Michael Norton about sexism. As I walked in, I wondered what else the lecture could be about, different from the LHBS sessions we’ve had. What new issues could it possibly address? Turns out… vastly different issues and disturbingly identifiable ones, particularly to me as a woman!

For a moment:

Imagine you are in your office, and your (male) Boss comes up to you. He has to leave early to go to his baby girl’s medical checkup. If you’re like most people, you’re going to immediately award him a “fatherhood premium” and be filled with admiration at how he easily manages his work as well as his personal life.

Imagine now, that your subordinate is a woman. She comes up to you, as she has to leave early to go to her baby’s medical checkup. If you’re like most people, you’re going to say yes, but immediately award her a “motherhood penalty” and think about the number of such events likely to happen in the near future.

Sexism does exist, and it takes the form of stereotypes, which unconsciously affect the way we perceive others around us. Prof Cuddy and Norton touched on two axes along which people are measured almost immediately, which form the basis of our “split second” judgement on people: Warm and Competence. Warmth relates to how people like you; attributes such as friendliness, helpfulness and trustworthiness. The competence trait includes ability, skill levels and intelligence.

Prof Cuddy suggests that our perceptions of stereotypes force us to make snap judgments even before we have data to make any nuanced decision. One of the studies she referenced was about how if Asian women self identified themselves as ‘Asian’ and a ‘woman’ on a test, she was likely to do worse than if she didn’t identify herself at all. Such research has implications for not just how women feel about themselves, but also how they perform in class and at work.

One of the most interesting parts of the talk was when Prof Norton and Prof Cuddy talked about how women are categorized into three areas:

– Warm, but not competent – Working moms
– Sexy, but not competent
– Cold, but competent – Female professionals

Usually, the warm and not competent woman is thought of as the “Home maker”, a traditional female role with characteristics such as warmth, being supportive and being nurturing. The “Sexy” woman is objectified and has characteristics such as being ‘fun’ and ‘sexy’. The “Career Woman” plays a non-traditional role and is characterized as strong, decisive and assertive.

It seems as though working moms risk being reduced to one of two subtypes: homemakers-viewed as warm but incompetent, or female professionals-characterized as competent but cold. The study presents four important findings. First, when working women become mothers, they trade perceived competence for perceived warmth. Second, working men don’t make this trade; when they become fathers, they gain perceived warmth and maintain perceived competence. Third, people report less interest in hiring, promoting, and educating working moms relative to working dads and childless employees. Finally, competence ratings predict interest in hiring, promoting, and educating workers. Thus, working moms’ gain in perceived warmth does not help them, but their loss in perceived competence does hurt them.

The book, Through the Labyrinth: the Truth about How Women Become Leaders by Alice Eagly, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has suggested that a labyrinth is a much more apt metaphor for the challenges facing women. The route to the top that women must navigate is complex and often discontinuous, gradually eroding the number of women prepared to make the sacrifices to push on higher.”There isn’t an absolute barrier stopping progress at a high level but rather a progressive falling away of women at every level, not just at the top,” said Eagly. (//

As I walked out of the event, I was amazed at what the study implies for women who want to navigate the labyrinth successfully. Some of the questions that got me thinking were about women at HBS who felt they had to depart from their usual cheerful self in order to be taken seriously here. Is there such a huge price to being a woman at HBS? And in the future, would there be an even bigger price to be paid to climb to the top of the corporate ladder?

Sections interested in discussing or learning more about genders within their sections can reach out to the WSA and/or Professor Cuddy/Norton for assistance.