The boxes we put ourselves in: How we perpetuate stereotypes

by Deborah on March 21, 2012

I have always resisted labels: vehemently, violently rejected them.

Labels that get flung my way include those about my social standing, marital and parental status, religion, cultural heritage and nationality, sexuality, education levels, intellect, professional role, political affiliation and even gender (am I a Ms, Miss, Mrs? A woman, lady or female?).

Labels help others, and ourselves, determine whether we’re part of an ‘in group’ or the ‘out group.’ They come with stereotypes, assumptions, expectations and categorisations that invite lazy thinking – or none at all.

Labels inherently provoke pre-judgement, preconceptions and bias.

Consider an introduction to

  • an Indian Muslim;
  • a professional coach;
  • a New Zealand academic;
  • a radical feminist;
  • a right wing economist;
  • a single mother;
  • a woman executive;
  • a female leader.

What comes to mind as you consider each of these labels? What assumptions do you make? How might those assumptions prevent you from paying attention to the individual characteristics of the person, or filter what you hear or say?

Labels distance us from others, which can be helpful as we manage a myriad of personal interactions every day. However, when we cloak ourselves with a label, we also unconsciously collude in the perpetuation of a stereotype.

How many times have you seen a colleague adopt a persona in line with their role, audience or position? Once they’ve stepped into their persona, their behaviour, voice and communication style can change in line with expectations.

For women in particular, this is a problem.

Women leaders have learned that to be regarded as credible, they must adopt the behaviours, norms and rituals of their male colleagues. This distances them from other women, and limits their ability to be effective role models. Other women watch women leaders and make decisions about their ability or willingness to ‘be like that’.

Additionally, the label ‘woman leader/politician/executive etc’ prompts women to unconsciously constrain their views, input or style as they seek to act like the label or persona. This effectively dilutes their personal power and limits their contribution.

Assumptions and stereotypes of women in the workplace do not serve women well. However, men and women collude in perpetuating them.

 So next time you label yourself, or conform to expectations of others or the role, ask yourself whether it serves you or others.

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