Stereotyping cuts across many phases of life. Studies have, however, shown that women suffer more, especially in the work place, writes OYEBOLA OWOLABI.
Bishop Priscilla Otuya was betrayed. She was wrongfully accused by friends, relatives, and associates in her journey to being the first female president of a religious association. It wasn’t palatable. Her offence: She is a woman and so not worthy of leading men, at least to those men in her circle of profession.
The cleric is definitely not the first female Bishop in Nigeria, but the first female to lead a male-dominated religious association. The battles she fought to get there, and remain there, are better imagined.
Being a young female audit consultant has not been easy for Ayomikun Titiloye because people naturally believe the profession is an exclusive reserve for men, and elderly at that. She has had to put in extra effort to show herself capable.
Olabisi Awolola runs her own accounting/audit firm. She is constantly on her toes to leave a good first impression with clients.
“Clients must give me a chance to prove that my firm can do what other firms owned by big and elderly men can do. I own an audit firm and my gender and age are what amazes people because my industry is seen to be one dominated by men, and usually the elderly.
“When a friend introduced me to a company, the managing director was surprised to see a young woman in practice because their outgoing auditor was an elderly man. This is the story of most companies. But anytime I have a referral, I present myself well and display knowledge at our first meeting so you don’t doubt my ability,” she said.
These women, and many others out there, should not have to go the extra mile to be recognised or get a promotion, but because the society has so much stereotyped the work environment, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to aspire and attain certain positions, and even perform optimally.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, a gender stereotype is a generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by women and men.
The UN describes gender stereotyping as the practice of ascribing to an individual woman or man specific attributes, characteristics, or roles by reason only of her or his membership in the social group of women or men.
It adds that “gender stereotyping is wrongful when it results in a violation or violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
A study by Assistant Prof. Katherine Coffman of the Harvard Business School explained it further. It stated that “stereotypes are pervasive, widely-held views that shape beliefs about our own and others’ abilities, likely from a very young age. Until we can change these stereotypes, it’s essential to think about how we can better inoculate individuals from biases induced by stereotypes, helping people to pursue fulfilling careers in the areas where their passions and talents lie.”
These beliefs and labels of what a woman should do or be, most times force women to see themselves as not capable, and so limit themselves. Just like Bishop Otuya and Titiloye who first felt incapable of performing.
“Yes, at first, at the beginning of my journey, I felt incapable, and that is because of the molds of misinformation that surround us as women. You know who you are and what you have inside, but you are not sure you can because of popular beliefs. But looking inwards and shutting out the fear and dissenting voices in my mind, I find myself doing better than I thought I could, and the positive response I get helped me to believe more in myself,” the cleric said.
Titiloye narrates her own experience: “Yes, I feel incapable a lot of the time, especially when it’s my first time with a big client. But that feeling fades away as quickly as it came when we are on the job as a team. Sometimes when I lead teams and I’m the only female, some clients don’t want to co-operate until they are sure I know what I am doing. Moreover, being the youngest in a team and the leader makes it difficult relating with some clients in the first few days.
“One of my first jobs was a team of three women. The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the firm we were auditing practically rubbished us and asked for our family backgrounds, spouses’ backgrounds, and even complained about our dressing. We weren’t comfortable but did the job. By the time we were leaving after two weeks, and had the exit meeting, he apologised for his treatment of us because he thought we were not capable of handling the job. He was quite elderly though.
“Another CFO was trying to intimidate us by asking for our membership numbers so he would have an idea of when we qualified as chattered accountants.”
A study by Ina Toegel, a Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change, and Maude Lavanchy, a Research Associate, describes stereotypes as shortcuts for forming impressions of people and guiding decisions, without people being completely aware of it.
They said: “Gender preconceptions have important consequences for the workplace, including not getting credit where it is due. Whenever women work with men on male gender-typed tasks, men are more likely to be credited for joint successes and women are more likely to be blamed for joint failures. These negative performance expectations can only be overturned when the woman’s individual contribution is unquestionable, or her task competence is very high.
“Men are promoted on potential while women are promoted for proven performance. Research shows that women are held to stricter standards for promotion: promoted women have higher performance ratings than promoted men, and performance ratings are more strongly related to promotions for women than for men.
“The backlash effect is that women who counter their stereotype and break expectations are often perceived to be bossy and unlikeable. However, the paradox is that when women conform to gender stereotypes (e.g. by showing emotional sensitivity and concern for others), they are likely to be perceived as less competent.”
Can this mindset be changed? Toegel and Lavanchy propose certain actions – learning, moving confidently into male-dominated spaces and speaking up, and preparing to react (women should anticipate and prepare to react to inappropriate or discriminating comments).
Learning is what Titiloye does to counter clients who feel she is not capable. “I get informed about the company I am going to audit. Its activities, previous year’s reports and financial statements to sort the first impression issue. It shows I know about the company I am auditing and can ask a few questions to offset them too. I also ensure I am a good team player/leader so we can come up with a good report at the end of the audit,” she said.
For Bishop Otuya, asserting herself has kept her going. “I honestly didn’t think about proving anything to anyone because that’s how I am wired. I simply follow my heart and my convictions to do what should be done without sentiments. I am a jovial easy-going person, but when it comes to my work with God, I don’t play around. And as it is written, a city on a hill cannot be hidden, and the gift of a man makes a way for him and brings him before kings. That I believe is my staying power. And as they say, you don’t change a winning team,” she said.