A study co-authored by students and faculty from UC Berkeley’s Walter A. Haas School of Business found that stereotypes surrounding middle-aged women and their alleged lack of friendliness may negatively affect them in the workplace.
The study, written by Haas Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Chatman and four others, analyzed how women are seen as “less warm” as they age, causing them to be evaluated more negatively in the workplace.
Chatman said she was prompted to begin this study because of a practice she called “me-search” in which she noticed that her teacher ratings were flattening as she accrued more experience.
“I couldn’t quite understand what was going on,” Chatman said. “It didn’t make sense to me because I was more and more experienced and knowledgeable and better at teaching; it’s something that gets better with experience.”
The initial study outlined how perceptions of agency increase as individuals get older; it also found that women were perceived as being less friendly with age while men were not. According to co-author and campus doctoral candidate Sonya Mishra, interactions of age and gender affect these perceptions of warmth.
Mishra noted that as the perception of a woman’s agency increases, she is seen as violating feminine stereotypes of needing to be warm and friendly. As women contradict social expectations, Mishra added, perceivers have difficulty processing these supposed irregularities.
“Callous, harsh and sensitive are some of the words that have been found to be negative labels that society applies to women when they are assertive and breaking their gender stereotypes,” Mishra said.
According to co-author and New York University assistant professor Michael North, these findings show that women who already have to face an uphill battle in their careers, when compared to men, face heightened struggles in their middle age.
Chatman noted that this study can help explain why women are prevented from advancing to higher positions at critical points in their careers and why their performance is viewed more harshly.
Campus associate professor and chair of Gender and Women’s Studies Leslie Salzinger mentioned that the results of the study bring greater attention to the long-standing stereotypes that cause professional women to be judged more harshly. However, she also noted the importance of looking at these issues with more intersectionality.
“It is odd that these studies take ‘women’ to be a unified category, given equally strong findings for people of color in such positions, and most strongly, for women of color,” Salzinger said in an email.
Mishra noted that the importance of being perceived as likable carries a lot of weight for women’s careers, especially since gender bias for women begins very young and intensifies as they get older.
Awareness is an important first step for people to check their behavior and fight these stereotypes moving forward, Mishra emphasized.
“We’re not judging people based on their behavior and capabilities — we’re judging them based on pre-programmed biases that we have,” Chatman said. “By highlighting this predictable, systematic bias that is robust across all of these different studies, we can say to people, ‘Listen you need to watch out for this.’”