Why Women May Resent Compliments About Being ‘Collaborative’ at Work
In the office, collaboration is a virtue. To call someone social and cooperative may all be good traits when evaluated in silos. Yet, trouble arises when the said expectations of collaboration apply to some more than others. New research shows that when women are positively told they are more collaborative and socially affable than others, they feel a sense of “anger and frustration” for it echoes an understated gender stereotype in the workplace.
Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last month, the research offers an interesting lens about “positive traits” still feeding a gender stereotype.
“What we find is that women report more anger and frustration when they were expected to be collaborative or socially skilled than men experienced when they were expected to be assertive or decisive,” said Devon Proudfoot, assistant professor of human resource studies in the ILR School, Cornell University, and co-author of the study.
Arguably, these are “positive” character traits, compliments that speak to someone’s virtue. But the context is critical here: in most work cultures globally, men are generally expected to be independent and assertive. The trope of the “genius” leader knocking off decisions from the list, knowing what they want, is quite rampant in pop culture and fuels this stereotype. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be social and communal, those who are friendly and work well in a team.
Proudfoot, along with his co-researchers, asked participants about instances where they were required to conform to a gender expectation. Women spoke critically about the need to be “collaborative,” while men disliked the expectation of always being “assertive.” The degree of anger was more pronounced for the women.
One reason for this resentment has to do with the conflict between autonomy and expectations. Women who may want to operate autonomously and spontaneously may feel constrained by the gender expectation of having to be collaborative. “Collaboration,” then, feels less like a compliment to women and more of a gendered expectation. “We find that this conflict helps explain women’s frustration toward the positive gender stereotypes they experience.”
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At the same time, work culture and how it weaves in gender roles are incredibly varying across the world. While the U.S. carries an individualistic culture in general, countries like India are more in keeping with the collectivistic culture — where social connection is highly valued.
These standards of social expectations change the way women may perceive “compliments’ then. The present study compares participants’ responses, collected both from people in the U.S. and in India. Turns out, the expectation of social networking and collaboration didn’t quite grate so much on Indian women; the “positive” gender stereotype was in keeping with the cultural goals of interdependence, the researchers reasoned. According to Proudfoot, it’s the “interaction between cultural models of ideal selfhood and the expectations placed on women and men that shape how women and men experience gendered pressures.”
Positive gender stereotypes are self-dissolving — these may be nice things that on the surface don’t seem harmful. Statements like, “oh, women are so nurturing or caring” are passed off as genuine compliments. Yet, the thing with stereotypes is they work to reinforce traditional gender roles and even sustain inequalities between different genders.
What if someone isn’t particularly feeling social on a given day, and would much rather finish individual tasks in a given day? Or, if someone works better alone than in a group? These positive traits may not apply to them, casting negative consequences for women in the workplace.
The continued persistence of “office housework” is one such example; the onus of performing “domestic functions” like organizing birthday parties or “rounding up people” to attend meetings often falls on women by virtue of their gender.
The degree of pervasiveness is dangerous here. Studies already show that if women refuse to perform these administrative tasks, they are penalized in tangible and intangible ways: they are subjected to worse performance evaluations, considered for fewer promotions, and just thought to be “less likable” by peers.
Cultural expectations in the workplace play out in multifarious ways — and some don the role of asserting stereotypes and strengthening biases. At the heart of it is a quest for individual agency, one that employers trust enough to decide what is best for the person, and the organization.