Why Women Are the Oppressed Majority

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Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 57, No. 4, 2001, pp. 657–674

Description and Prescription: How Gender Stereotypes Prevent Women’s Ascent Up the Organizational Ladder Madeline E. Heilman*
New York University

This review article posits that the scarcity of women at the upper levels of organizations is a consequence of gender bias in evaluations. It is proposed that gender stereotypes and the expectations they produce about both what women are like (descriptive) and how they should behave (prescriptive) can result in devaluation of their performance, denial of credit to them for their successes, or their penalization for being competent. The processes giving rise to these outcomes are explored, and the procedures that are likely to encourage them are identified. Because of gender bias and the way in which it influences evaluations in work settings, it is argued that being competent does not ensure that a woman will advance to the same organizational level as an equivalently performing man. Why are women so scarce at the top level of organizations? It is proposed here that gender bias in evaluation is a primary cause. The “glass ceiling,” which presents an impenetrable barrier at some point in a woman’s career (Morrison, White, & Van Velsor, 1987), is viewed as a natural consequence of gender stereotypes and the expectations they produce about what women are like and how they should behave. Because of gender bias and the way in which it influences evaluation in work settings, being competent provides no assurance that a woman will advance to the same organizational levels as an equivalently performing man.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Madeline E. Heilman, Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washington Place, Room 576, New York, NY 10003 [e-mail: mh@psych.nyu.edu]. 657 © 2001 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

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Heilman

The claim that gender stereotypes are responsible for biased evaluations in organizations is not new. Gender stereotypes have frequently been used to explain why women are not hired into positions leading to organizational power and prestige. I, however, am positing that the effects of gender stereotypes continue to dog women as they climb the organizational ladder. These ideas contrast sharply with other explanations of why there are so few women at the top organizational levels, such as “pipeline” theories that lay the blame on time and supply (e.g., Forbes, Piercy, & Hayes, 1988), and “deficit” theories that presume women to be deficient in the characteristics necessary to fulfill traditionally male roles (e.g., Feuer, 1988). They also expand our thinking about the ways in which gender stereotypes contribute to the discriminatory treatment of women in work settings. Key to the assertion that gender stereotypes and the biased evaluations they produce inhibit women from progressing upward to the top of organizations are the stereotyped conceptions of what women are like and how they should behave. A consideration of these two aspects of gender stereotypes follows. Gender Stereotypes Gender-Stereotypic Attributes Stereotyped beliefs about the attributes of men and women are pervasive and widely shared. Moreover, these stereotyped beliefs have proved very resistant to change (see Dodge, Gilroy & Fenzel, 1995; Leuptow, Garovich, & Leuptow, 1995). To summarize briefly, men and women are thought to differ both in terms of achievement-oriented traits, often labeled as “agentic,” and in terms of social- and service-oriented traits, often labeled as “communal” (Bakan, 1966). Thus, men are characterized as aggressive, forceful, independent, and decisive, whereas women are characterized as kind, helpful, sympathetic, and concerned about others. Not only are the conceptions of women and men different, but they also often are oppositional, with members of one sex seen as lacking what is thought to be most prevalent in members of the...
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