Dr. Alia Crum, a psychologist at Columbia University, has one thought that sits at the center of, and motivates, all of her research: How you think about something can transform its effect on you. Said another way, the effect you expect is the effect that you get. She has tested this theory in all manner of research subjects; from highly active hotel housekeepers who, when primed to consciously see their work as exercise rather than straining physical activity, lost weight and became healthier; to people undergoing a shake tasting study who, when drinking the exact same milkshake but primed to believe it was a decadent full fat indulgence, experienced significantly different effects on their hormone and satiety levels than when they thought it was a low fat shake.
Alia’s provocative hypothesis is that when two outcomes are possible—in the first case above, the health benefits of exercise or the strain of physical labor—what a person expects directly influences the outcomes they will wind up with. In both studies, the effect most participants expected was exactly the effect they got. And profoundly, absolutely nothing else changed in the experiments other than their mindset.
So what does this mean for gender and what exactly is a gender mindset?
If you think about mindset as the filter through which you view life, that is based on your beliefs about how the world works and is shaped by your experiences, then you can begin to see how the gender mindset you choose can impact how you show up at work, and the outcomes you’re able to achieve. As our mindsets get activated—by a memory, a situation you find yourself in, or a remark someone makes—it sets off a cascade of thoughts, emotions, and goals that bias how you respond to life. It’s quite important then to be intentional and mindful about the choices we’re making.
In our Lead Like A Woman workshops, programs, coaching, and corporate leadership development programs, as well as our own personal experiences, we have come to see that there are three primary mindsets that determine how women view their gender and its impact on their careers.
Mindset 1 – Gender is negative. This mindset is rooted in the belief that being female has negative consequences on your career, makes it harder to progress, and limits leadership success. This mindset buys into and perpetuates the findings of all the research studies that report how hard it is for women to get ahead. The bias is negative. Thought patterns include:
- I am limited in my ability to succeed because I am a woman.
- Gender norms and stereotypes negatively impact how I am perceived.
- At work I must fit into expected and often male modes of behavior to get ahead.
- I will be paid less and given fewer opportunities to progress.
Mindset 2 – Gender is neutral. This mindset is based on the belief that your gender has no impact on your performance at work, ability to progress or leadership success. This mindset simply does not see gender as an issue, making the bias neutral. Thought patterns can include:
- I succeed on my own terms.
- I don’t buy into gender stereotypes or their impact on how I am viewed.
- My work environment has the same impact on me as my male counterparts.
- I don’t believe my gender has any correlation to the opportunities available to me.
Mindset 3 – Gender is positive. This mindset is based on the belief that being female is actually a benefit in the workplace, and that inherent female character traits are of great value to work, leadership, and success. These traits are seen as an asset, not detraction, to positive workplace outcomes. The bias is, therefore, positive. Thought patterns include:
- My natural feminine traits and characteristics are strengths to be valued.
- I’m not limited by gender norms and being a woman is an asset.
- At work I do not need to fit in or change myself to comply with male modes of behavior.
- My gender enhances the opportunities available to me at work.
Of these mindsets, from both the research and our own observation, we see that Mindset 1 – Gender is negative, is the most common. Given that the current narrative and discourse around women and work is full of statistics and opinions about how hard it is for women to succeed at work, this is not a surprise.
We also find a large number of women in Mindset 2 – Gender is neutral. I found myself in this mindset for a large part of my career, pretty much blind to the fact that being female had any consequences, negative or positive, on my ability to succeed at work. I worked hard and played by the rules of the businesses I was in and rose through the ranks swiftly and seemingly with ease. It wasn’t until I hit senior management and got a real taste of what it’s like to be a female leader in staunchly male dominated workplaces, that I started to see that perhaps things weren’t so gender neutral after all.
On the other hand, Dr. Michelle McQuaid, co-author of our new book Lead Like A Woman, who had a similar and speedy rise to the top, found herself more in Mindset 3 – Gender is positive. As she recounts when we have this discussion, for a large part of her management journey in one of the world’s largest professional services firms, she was well aware that both her gender and her feminine traits were assets in many ways that helped her career. She intentionally drew on these—even when male leaders told her that she was too nice to succeed—to carve the path she most wanted.
Mindsets are not black-and-white truths about the world. They are based on evidence, but they are also stances we choose to take toward life. Having a mindset that acknowledges that your gender can be an asset does not discount that there may also be very real challenges in your workplace. You don’t need to talk yourself out of the gender imbalance you might see at work; you’re simply choosing to put your focus on the opportunities you also see because of your gender or in yourself. The mindset shift that matters is the one that allows you to hold a more balanced view of the impact of gender in the workplace—to fear it less, to trust yourself to handle it—to use it as a resource for engaging with life.
How might your mindset about gender be influencing your experiences of the world?
This article by Megan Dalla-Camina first appeared in Womens Agenda in their Lead Like A Woman series where they’re sharing edited extracts from the new book Lead Like A Woman – your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and Dr. Michelle McQuaid. Megan and Michelle are taking a fresh, evidence based approach to what it really takes for women to show up authentically and lead with confidence.
You can download the first two chapters of the book for free from the Lead Like a Woman website.
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