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It is said workplaces constitute one of the more interesting locations where individuals do gender and engage in relational practice, constructing their professional identities and meeting their organisations expectations. This paper will seek to examine the implications of gender stereotypes and how this can improve or impede women's career progression with emphasis on the opposing "iron maiden" and "mother" stereotypes (Aries, 1998; Jaimeson, 1995; Kanter, 1977; Wood & Conrad, 1983) as referenced in Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture (Wood, 2007, pp.231-233). I will seek to recognise how these classifications are defined through prescriptive and descriptive gender behaviours, gender performativity and relational practice; theories which are all influential in cultivating and understanding gender based stereotypes.
Stereotypes represent a form of social knowledge that is linked to actions, attitudes, rules and other forms of knowledge and behavioural representation (Greenwald, Banaji, Rudman, Farnham & Nosek, 2000). Gendered stereotypes for woman in the workforce are classified by Wood (2007) into one of four roles representing inherently generalised female categories; these are sex object, mother, child, and iron maiden. A gender stereotype consists of an intentional bias, created by norms that when not followed, induce disapproval and social penalties for direct or inferred norm violations.
Heilman in Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace: Obstacles to Women's Career Progress (2007) describes descriptive behaviour as 'what men and woman are like', and prescriptive behaviours as 'how women and men should behave' with both having consequences for how woman are evaluated in achievement settings. If descriptive behaviour refers to biological elements associated with masculinity and femininity, prescriptive behaviour is the social standards by which we have become accustomed to. Heilman categorises gender by a mass generalisation, claiming men are "agentic" in reference to dominance, ambition and independence, as opposed to women who are "communal" which implies compassion, interpersonal sensitivity and the overused emotional tag.
Indirect gender based discrimination allows stereotypic beliefs to be an obstacle for women in management. Evidence suggests that to have equal opportunity for promotion or to be taken seriously by subordinates a woman should alter prescriptive behaviours, thus engaging in what Heilman (2007) calls "gender management", a term which overlaps with Butlers theory of "gender as performance" which traces the multivalent discourses around sex and gender. Butlers Gender Trouble (1990), challenges the notion of identity as a static category 'into which an individual places his or herself, or as a category imposed onto individuals'. Women are more likely to engage in gender management, downplaying femininity in order to play on the same field as male colleagues believing this to be advantageous to career goals.
Gender management can be seen in the independent, ambitious, competitive professional female whose tough exterior or masculine performance lends itself to a degree of respect in the workplace, an authority granted by a directive personality which often achieves workplace results. However, challenging nature and violating the stereotype by use of gender strategy can create social acceptance issues. Overacting a stereotype links with behaviour deemed abnormal, a violation that allows a person to be pigeon-holed into a stereotype, and as a consequence true skill sets are overlooked.
Relational practice, a term coined by Fletcher (1999) in Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work, refers to the wide range of "off-line, backstage, or collaborative work that people do which goes largely unrecognised and unrewarded in the workplace" (Holmes, 2004). It speaks of the work that builds, energises, and maintains projects, teams, and one's own professional growth, work that is essential to organisational foundations, but seemly is discounted in many workplaces. Fletchers research shows that emotional intelligence and relational behaviour often "get disappeared" in practice, not because they are ineffective but because they are associated with the feminine or softer side of work. Holmes (2004) proposes that the subtle support work of relational practice is considered "women's work". If such prescriptive behaviour or gendered communication is being 'managed' from the workplace it could be said that, in the quest for gender equality, women have aided in the disappearance of relational practice within a corporate setting.
Gender stereotypes and the expectations they produce about what women are like (descriptive) and how woman should behave (prescriptive) can result in devaluation of professional performance, denial of credit for successes, or even penalisation for being competent, however simply being competent does not ensure that a woman will advance to the same organisation level as an equally performing man (Heilman, 2001). Limitations to professional women are essentially due to the stereotypical image of "what a manager is" that favours men. A bias which creates the perception of competence through gender can conclude a poor fit between the characteristics associated with a leader and with the female description which constitutes a barrier to women.
The implications for the gender/power dynamic if forced can result in long term costs contradictory to the purpose of trying to achieve equal standing by means of preforming gender or communicating in another genders language. A woman who acts to stereotype may find herself "stuck in the middle", in what Holmes (2007) refers to as a "double-bind" (p.211). An "iron maiden" may preform and manage her gender to keep up with her male colleagues only to be denied advancement for lacking feminine qualities. When standing equal to a man, she is then judged on her character. Although she demonstrates success through results, she may be held back from climbing the corporate ladder as her prescriptive behaviour is not "communal"; she is not woman enough by accepted social standards.
An "iron maiden" may be isolated from social interactions with work peers for entertaining the masculine language of indifference (Coates, 1998), the perception of being cold and unfriendly by not partaking in small talk or allowing personal openness (Wood, 2007). Small talk or "corridor talk" servesÂ as one of many discourse functionsÂ within workplace communication and is largely associated with a feminine communication styles (Holmes, 2005). This form of discourse in comprised of "core business talk"Â (talk which is relevant to the core business of the organisation that is focused, context bound, on task and has a high information content) and "phatic communion" ('atopical' discourse which is not relevant to the core business of the organisation, but is important for its interactive qualities and social content).
In contrast to the "iron maiden", is the "mother", a stereotype with two prongs which encompasses the figurative, pertaining to the prescriptive behavioural expectations of the female as a nurturer, in the belief that every female holds maternal instinct to care, or is literally a mother with children of her own. There is then the expectation to carry the load in terms of "emotional labour" (Wood, 2007), to take care of the "face needs of others" (Holmes, 2006). A "mother" may take care of "emotional labour" and be respected for doing so on a personal level, but regarded as too emotional, uncommitted or simply lacking the desired masculine traits required for senior management. Many stay at home mothers refer to their "full time job", that motherhood is a career in itself. This fuels the debate that working mothers come preloaded with a "communal" attitude to be taken advantage of in emotive tasks and (while often true), will prioritise the needs of their family over the demands of their careers. In doing so, these women are labelled as "not serious professionals", opening the door for gender discrimination and stunted career progression.
The underlying expectations taken from engaging in "emotional labour" involves playing the support role to the leading act, a perceived subordinate role from the outset. When a "mother" steps up to be heard, and asserts dominance she is often dismissed, her credibly possibly marred by her personal communications, partaking in too much "small talk" or the stereotype held by others regarding her behaviour being emotional or stressed. (Martin & Esteban, 2005). This goes beyond the "woman belong in the kitchen" mentality of the past and aligns with our own upbringing, our ingrained social knowledge of prescriptive feminine behaviours. When a woman manager who fits the "mother" mould becomes authoritarian, do we revert to our youth and see our own mothers pointing their fingers in a telling off?
Theory argues that the most effective leader should behave androgynously (Nadesan & Trethwey, 2000), but the most prosperous women in business tip toe on the boundaries of the four stereotypes of woman in the workplace, using the pros and cons of each to their advantage, without taking advantage or violating the stereotype. Women are obliged to "walk a tightrope of impression management", and as Holmes (2007) points out that many woman walk the tightrope successfully; but negotiating such contradictory demands is an additional burden for them to carry. Participants in the workplace can aid in transforming the gender dynamic to contribute to more effective interactive workplace practices rather than accepting current dominant / subordinate relationships through analysing interactive experiences, exposing and contesting the systemic ways in which sexism and discrimination filter into the workplace discourse. Gender may not always be the most salient factor: social identities, status and professional role can determine success in management within a stereotype. Language attitudes and evaluations are key, as gendered discourse especially the undervalued and often stigmatised relational practice of small talk can expose strengths and weaknesses of a manager but like the tight rope, the skill for success is ultimately achieving balance.