The Report

What's really holding women back?

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Stanford psychologist Lauren Aguilar has an explanation for why women may underperform in the workplace.

When Kara Martin Snyder looks back at her time at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, one scene lingers in her mind. It's lunchtime in the windowless work space, and the men in the office are engaged in a push-up contest. At the time, she laughed it off. In retrospect, the public show of machismo strikes her as odd.

“It wasn't like the women were off in the corner having a sewing circle,” she explains. But these men were still carrying on the antics of a good old boys club. “A lot of these workplaces like to say that there's no glass ceiling and everyone's got an opportunity,” she says, “but in social ways, nothing's changed.”

Many professional women can relate to such scenarios: those moments when the only woman in the room is tasked with taking notes during a meeting; when a supervisor asks a female employee to run an errand she suspects he wouldn't ask of her male coworkers; when an executive repeatedly goes out for after work drinks with just “the guys.”

Whether these perceived slights are as overt as a push-up contest or as subtle as a post-work drink, such situations can instill women with a damaging sense of threat, says Stanford University gender scholar Lauren Aguilar -- even if other women or men nearby don't perceive them the same way.

"These can be very subtle social things that seem really innocent," Aguilar explains, "but for some women they're really taken as, 'I don't belong here, or I might be treated differently because of my gender here.'"

The repercussions of such sensitivity are especially damaging for women in a business setting, where a person continuously needs to be "on" socially in order to succeed.

To evaluate this, Aguilar asked a large group of women to complete a survey. Each woman answered eleven questions regarding how much she worried that gender stereotypes put her at a professional disadvantage. Some women registered a higher sensitivity to such threat than others. Aguilar then observed how well the women performed in a constructed business negotiation.

Researchers can quantify how someone does in a social situation by taking note of the speech accommodations they make towards the other person. It's natural for us to mimic the speaking patterns of someone we're talking to. The more we do so, the more likely it is that person will see us favorably.

"In business negotiations it's really important to socially connect well, you want to be likable," Aguilar explains. But the women who were particularly sensitive to stereotype threat showed fewer signs of such accommodations. Their negotiation partners rated them less likable, and they won fewer "points" in the pretend negotiation.

One might expect women who are more concerned with gender stereotypes to be more accommodating. But Aguilar says preoccupation with such concerns produces the opposite result.

“It's not the women's skills that causing them to under-perform,” she says, “it's the negative gender stereotypes in their environment that lead them to become anxious. They can't concentrate because they're actually trying to disprove the stereotypes, then unfortunately all their attention isn't on the task in front of them.”

A recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. found that, “the full potential of women in the workforce has yet to be tapped.” Instead of pointing to the oft-cited culprit of struggles with work-family balance, they list exclusion from informal networks -- like the group of guys that go out for a beer after work -- as one of the major causes preventing women from advancing into higher positions.

When it's suggested that women could improve their job performance if they were simply less sensitive, Aguilar disagrees.

“I think the onus is really on organizations to ensure that women and men are treated equally,” she says. “Subtle things make women more sensitive that they later might be passed over, that's where these self-fulfilling prophesies play out. It's not the women's problem, it's the organization and the way individuals treat others in organizations.”

Aguilar's own work suggests that outside influence can help a woman overcome concern with gender as a liability. Aguilar's study proctors told some women that their gender would not affect their capability in the study's constructed business negotiation. When these verbally assured women went through the scenario, women who had registered as extra sensitive to gender stereotype threat no longer showed poorer performance in the negotiation.

Correction 10/16/12: The location of the push-up competition was originally misstated as Tipping Point Partners. We sincerely regret this misrepresentation.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure