Double standards for women exist, but female empowerment shines through

If there’s one bias that most women face at some point in their lives, it’s conscious or unconscious double standards.

Singer Taylor Swift not-so-subtly alludes to in her hit The Man, she sings, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there quicker, if I was a man.’ 

Well, possibly. According to Harvard Business Review (HBR) workplace managers use more positive words to describe men in performance reviews, and more negative ones to describe women. 

Double standards in the workplace 


A large-scale military dataset was chosen as a significant setting to evaluate gender bias due it being a long-standing and traditionally male profession.  

Looking at more than 4,000 participants and 81,000 evaluations to examine objective and subjective performance measures, this included a list of 89 positive and negative leadership attributes that were used to assess leader performance in a military leadership setting.

What was discovered is that while there were no gender differences in objective measures, such as grades, fitness scores and class standings, when looking at subjective leadership evaluations the most commonly used positive term to describe men was analytical, while for women it was compassionate.

And while some may question the difference between analytical and compassionate, HBR highlighted that when used in a workplace setting, one could be more valuable from an organizational standpoint.  

“The term analytical is task-oriented, speaking to an individual’s ability to reason, to interpret, to strategize, and lending support to the objectives or mission of the business. Compassion is relationship-oriented, contributing to a positive work environment and culture, but perhaps of less value to accomplishing the work at hand,” explains HBR. 

At the other end of the scale, the most commonly used negative term to describe men was arrogant, while women got labeled inept.

Equally concerning was the fact that the HBR found that there were statistically significant gender differences in how often the aforementioned terms, and others, were used – relative to the other positive or negative terms available for selection – when describing men and women, “even though men’s and women’s performances were the same by more objective measures.”

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t 

Female PhD students from Professor Henry Jenkins’ Public Intellectuals: Theory and Methods seminar took to their blogs to also delve into the subject. 

In an essay Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t (Fit Stereotypes): Navigating Contradictory Expectations of Women in the Workplace, Sierra Bray, Ph.D Fellow and Researcher, highlighted findings from her study. 

She said, “In a nutshell, our study showed that males tend to perceive an assertive woman in the workplace (one who spoke dominantly and directly) as less likable than a more passive woman. The finding that raised the most eyebrows was that older men in particular perceived the assertive woman as less likable and less competent. In any case, women who spoke up at work didn’t seem to fly too well with men.”

And the workplace double standards don’t stop there. Sierra throws the spotlight on motherhood bias as well as the ‘exponential’ struggles that queer and trans women face in the workplace. 

Female solidarity in nurturing interpersonal relationships

However, while it may seem like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, there’s also very much a positive in having to handle negative bias, and that’s having the support, encouragement and reinforcement from other strong women. 

“Ultimately, my research showing that these workplace biases exist is not meant to guide women how to act—it isn’t a road map promising how to get ahead by acting particularly feminine or masculine (in my eyes, anyone selling that type of road map is likely a fraud). Rather, I hope it brings some solidarity and awareness of the double-binds many women face,” Sierra explains. 

Sierra concludes nicely, “However, while I dedicate my career to looking into systematic workplace oppression, I also try to offset it with nurturing my interpersonal relationships with badass women in my life (and this also helps my own well-being). 

“This support may look like sending advice via text on how to negotiate a raise, venting and providing a hug when something sexist happens in a meeting, or setting aside time to get coffee with older professional women who inspire me (recognizing that having a network with these types of role models is a privilege in its own right).”

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