by Denise Berger
It is a classic scenario: A woman walks into a car dealership to inquire about trading in her car that is coming off lease for a new vehicle. First, the salesman strolls over and gives the twinkle-in-the-eye grin which she can only interpret as him assuming that she will be an easy sale. Why? Because women are notorious for not knowing how to negotiate financial terms. She straightens up and puts on her serious face. As they get to talking, he begins to s..l..o..w.. d…o…w…n h…i…s… s….p….e….e….c….h…. to explain to her that the bank (to where she has been paying each month’s bill) is the owner of her lease. Of course, the bank owns the car… SHE k…n…o…w…s… t…h…a…t…! Later, when she relays the final trade numbers to a male colleague he asks her, “What would be the residual on the car?” Her faux self-assured bubble popped!!! She never asked the sales guy. It didn’t even occur to her to ask! She thought she knew what she was doing but how unsophisticated of her to not know all the details, especially coming from such a highly educated, successful business woman.
The next day, driving up to a 4-way intersection, she came to a simultaneous stop with the car to the left of her. She proceeded first, being the car on the right. The man began shaking his head in disgust, believing that he had the right of way. She could almost see the bubble above his head, “typical woman driver.” His reaction caused her to pause, and she drove the rest of the way to her destination questioning whether she had remembered the protocol incorrectly. She went so far as to ask a friend for a second opinion AND check the internet. Had she done womankind a disservice by incorrectly remembering the rules of the road, thus feeding into the “bad woman driver” stereotype??? What if… because he assumed she was wrong, she immediately thought he might be correct? (By the way, readers will note that it is the driver on the right who has the right of way.)
Two different scenarios and outcomes but there is commonality in both - - as women we still enter certain situations at a deficit. Our ability to overcome the bias that society has bred in most of us for years is a function of the split-second in time when our confidence level is put to the test. This woman was humbled in the first experience and frustrated by the second one. However, in both situations she too was making gross assumptions and type-casting. She may well have entered both circumstances guarded and predisposed to thinking that these men were judging her, merely because she is a woman. In fact, we all really have no idea if the grin on the salesperson’s face was exactly the same one that he would have mustered up for the middle-aged professional businessman or if the man shaking his head wouldn’t have done the same thing to a male driver. Yes, yes - we are guilty of counter-stereotyping and, worse, changing our behavior and our confidence level to compensate. Clearly, our own perceptions about our efficacy being at stake because we wear a female label adds fuel to the fire and does not serve to p.r.o.m.o.t.e. o.u.r.s.e.l.v.e.s. into positions of parity.
Biologically speaking, innate gender roles stem from physical abilities, hormonal constitution and brain lateralization. However, this argument assumes that humankind does not evolve. In fact, the constant inter-twining of nature and nurture inherently breeds evolution of any species and the very distinct lines between caveman and cavewoman have certainly been broken down through the ages. Of course, we continue to undergo change, growth, advancement, development, set-backs, 2-steps forward/one-step back (hence the laundry list of best-sellers still analyzing gender differences). In the article, Girls Are... Boys Are…: Myths, Stereotypes and Gender Differences, the authors - Patricia B. Campbell, PhD and Jennifer N. Storo - point out that “girls as a group and boys as a group are more alike than they are different,” but the standard deviation within each gender from the average girl or average boy is quite significant. Remember the times when men were thought (and this still resonates today) to be more adept with electronics, e.g. “stereos” and women as more competent behind the (old-fashioned) “type”..writer? The problem with society is that we largely and deceivingly speak in averages.
What can you do about it? In .com/bookshelf/amazon?url=http://astore.amazon.com/mommytrackd-20/detail/0060818611/104-3854886-841993" target="_blank">Overcoming Underearning  Barbara Stanny discusses ways to overcome the barriers that we impose on ourselves. She empowers women to read, learn, embrace, make mistakes, overcome prescribed fears, either set by societal norms or by our own insecurities, and create new habits – whether it is negotiating a raise, a contract for improvements and betterments at the home, an event sponsored in the name of a non-profit organization or a car lease. Secondly, we remain on an evolutionary path that requires us to remain aware of dominant culture and stages of receptivity to women. “Women leaders need to acknowledge and be aware of the climate in order to navigate it, progress within it, and ultimately shape it,” says Kathryn Hayley in Why Women Leaders Can And Should be Authentic.
Finally, we also must stop assuming that we are being judged according to gender stereotypes all the time, just because they exist, and altering our behavior to compensate. In both genders, there are both aggressive and submissive personalities, competitive and nurturing characteristics, good and bad negotiators, drivers, athletes, musicians and intellects. As Campbell and Storo suggest, we can start by casting aside the notion that women are not qualitative; that women don’t do math because of some hormone deficiency; and that men and women can’t be mentors and teachers to each other. At the end of the day, stereotypes are part of society, but they are always subject to change and we can be part of the process by applying our authentic selves to situations and defining our moments with humble confidence. We become stronger as individuals when we recognize - but do not fuel - the social “averages”.