Taraji P. Henson in the movie, Hidden Figures.
Charlotte Whitton, the mayor of Ottawa between 1951 and 1956, said, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.”
As a consequence, women strive for perfection: nothing less than that is enough when they need to prove they can do the same jobs men can.
Claude Steele and his colleagues discovered the harming power of stereotype threat. If something in your identity is stereotyped as negative and you know it, the fear of confirming the stereotype will make you perform below your ability when feeling under pressure. This happens to white athletes competing against black ones, or to women taking difficult math tests.
The researchers also found that women under the threat of their stereotyped identity outperform their male counterparts in easy tasks. In other words, the extra pressure makes them do better than men in tasks that are not difficult.
What this means is that when you’re “working twice as hard,” your brain is overloaded and can only handle things that are easy. But because you’re “working twice as hard,” you nail that type of tasks–which you wouldn’t under other circumstances because they’re boring and uninteresting.
This has two critical consequences for women:
1. Women are seen as very good at the easy stuff–and only at that
Who’s the best at taking notes, proof-reading, double-checking lists? Right: women. And since they’re so good at it, why change their tasks? Why give them other (more difficult and interesting) assignments? Men are sloppier, and we know the “devil’s in the details,” so let’s leave them to women.
2. Women keep doing the easy stuff because they do it better than men
Meanwhile, men do what they do best: the difficult stuff. But guess what? It’s the difficult stuff that gives you visibility and puts you on the leadership path. No one has ever risen to CEO because she was “oriented to detail.” Men take care of strategy because women are so good a tactics.
Keeping gender stereotypes present, then, makes women do worse at difficult tasks and better at easy ones. Certain signs of “femininity” reinforce the stereotype that women are helpless and keep it present on their minds:
- Excessively high heels–we’d need help to escape a danger
- Long fingernails–we couldn’t use our hands efficiently and effectively
- Pencil skirts and other too tight clothes–we’d need help to climb a fence or run down the fire stairwell
- Dramatic make-up, sexy clothes, flashy patterns or jewelry–we could become easy targets of predators and would need protection
Thus, these signs that consistently remind women of their helplessness impose a threat to their performance.
The solution, then, has two steps: first, get rid of the external signs that remind you of your ‘damsel-in-danger’ condition. You’re a woman, not a helpless being. You ask for help when you need it but you don’t signal it all the time–because you don’t need help all the time.
Second, focus on the organization’s, client’s or team’s objectives and don’t over-worry about your performance. You can make mistakes–as everyone else. Your mistakes are your own and not the whole gender’s. Once your brain is more at ease, you’ll come up with creative, effective solutions for your clients’ specific problems.
Just work. Forget about ‘twice as hard.’