About once a week, I go out to lunch with one of my girlfriends from work. We typically request a table in the back, mostly as a courtesy to the other patrons. Because we’re not really there to eat lunch, but to connect, share stories and laugh.
All of which we do very loudly.
Then we go back to the office, sit through staff meetings and committee meetings. Listen, nod our heads and smile.
All of which we do very quietly.
I’ve often wondered about this contrast in behaviors. And felt frustration with myself (and other women like me) for our collective silence.
While we might think it’s hundreds of years of oppression manifesting itself around a conference table, it probably isn’t. We’re all bored, so a good idea would be a welcome reprieve, regardless from whom it originates and what their gender might be.
And while the “manterrupter” is a very real thing, I’m not seeing this happen. Mostly because it’s hard to interrupt someone when they’re not talking.
And finally, this silencing also happens to men. I know, it’s hard to imagine, but let’s play this out.
Imagine a guy walks into a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting. For those of us who have not attended a PTA meeting, it’s a committee of parents, a few exhausted teachers, and a school administrator that drew the short straw.
With rare exception, the group is entirely female.
Now here’s this dad. He’s a parent, so he’s got every right to be there. But he sits a bit off to the side, because he doesn’t want to look like he’s being “too friendly with the ladies.”
He hopes someone will sit next to him, but when they don’t, he pretends to be more comfortable than he actually feels. Smiles and fidgets with his pen.
The meeting begins, and in between talking about the next Bake Sale (he doesn’t bake) and wondering if so-and-so had her baby yet (he’s never been pregnant), he becomes acutely aware of his male identity and starts to feel a bit insecure.
Then the PTA Chair asks, “What film should we watch for Family Fun Night?”
Just as he’s about to suggest Beauty and the Beast, he chokes. He second-guesses himself. He wonders if proposing a girl-oriented film will sound weird coming from an adult man. Or if he should remain quiet, lest the women think he’s dominating the meeting as men are wont to do.
So he sits there, worrying and ruminating, until the conversation shifts to a new topic and he is left behind.
There is something powerful that keeps us silent, and it’s called stereotype threat. I realize the words “stereotype” and “threat” are equally intimidating, and bringing them together sounds like a huge bummer, but please, bear with me.
In this example, the dad is facing the stereotype of men being sexist or worse. And it is this threat that keeps him from speaking.
For anyone with a marginalized identity, stereotype threat is the equivalent of dark matter, the invisible and mysterious but very real substance that makes up the universe.
While scientists are still trying to understand dark matter, we have a deep understanding of stereotype threat and its impact on people.
We know that the fear of fulfilling a stereotype undermines performance, whether it’s African-American students taking a math test or white men playing basketball.
We know that the common stereotypes associated with women (dumb, emotional, pushy or worse) inhibit us in significant ways. From little girls in classrooms to grown women in boardrooms.
Which is why it’s so important to understand stereotype threat. Especially as women. And then take a few simple steps to manage it.
One of the most effective is to focus on parts of your identity that are not threatened by a stereotype. Perhaps it’s your role in the organization or your level of expertise.
Who you are beyond the threatened identity of being female is a powerful antidote to stereotype threat.
And if that doesn’t work, focus on your values, which are also part of your identity. I often encourage women to write down their top three values before going into any situation that might trigger a stereotype, whether that’s negotiating for a raise or speaking in front of a group.
And lastly, I invite you to be brave. To take small steps out of your Safe Space and into your Brave Space. To learn to get comfortable with the discomfort of stereotype. To speak when you feel the pressure to be silent.
Because like dark matter, stereotypes (and our fear of fulfilling them) are very real things with very real consequences. And they aren’t going anywhere.
So we need to.
We need to share our ideas, even if we’re afraid they’re “dumb” or “stupid.”
We need to advocate for ourselves, even though we might appear “pushy” or “too aggressive.”
We need to speak.
Because otherwise, we are left behind.
PS – To learn more about stereotype threat, check out the work of Dr. Claude Steele, a brilliant scholar and writer whose book Whistling Vivaldi informs the work I do with women and leadership. And if you haven’t already, check out my next event/webinar offering, “Brave Women Bake, Create & Lead.” I’m tackling stereotype threat in a new way, and I’d love to have you join me.