Stereotypes of middle-aged women as less 'nice' can hold them back at work

November 13, 2022

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Stereotypes of middle-aged women as less 'nice' can hold them back at work

As a popular tenured professor, the lead author of the present study was used to teaching at the top of her game. But as she entered her 40s and gained even more expertise, she noticed something strange: Her student class evaluations started getting worse.

What the researchers say: “If anything, my teaching was getting even better, but students were harder on me,” she says. What’s more, when she spoke to her middle-aged female colleagues, she found that they were experiencing similar declines, while the men around them were not.

The author went on to win a top award for teaching excellence, but her latest research offers empirical support for her experience: An analysis revealed that evaluations of male professors remain consistent over time, while women experience a quick decline from their initial peak in their 30s and hit rock bottom around age 47.

The analysis is one part of a new research paper published today in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The overall conclusion: Both men and women are perceived as more capable or effective as they get older, but only women are seen as less warm as they age—causing them to be judged more harshly.

The researchers note that at a time when women are only just beginning to approach parity in business schools and still make up only 6.4% of S&P 500 CEOs, the implications can be deadly to career ambition. “Middle age is a make-or-break time”, the lead author said. “People are being groomed and considered for the top jobs. We have to look beyond the pipeline to see what’s actually happening in terms of the experiences women are having throughout their careers.”

Perceptions of “warmth” and “agency” are two fundamental measures that social science researchers have shown are critical to judging those around us. “The first thing we notice about someone is whether they are warm or cold,” explain the researchers. It tells you something about whether they have good or bad intentions towards you. ‘Agency’ addresses the question of how capable we perceive them to be in achieving those intentions.”

Past research has established that, in general, women are stereotyped to be warmer than men, while men are perceived as having greater agency—or being more capable and assertive. This is a legacy of historical divisions in which women were in charge of child-rearing while men hunted or worked. “The stereotypes have outlived their utility,” the authors said, adding that friction can emerge when women run counter to those stereotypes by achieving a position of greater agency at work.

Studies have also shown that perceptions of both warmth and agency generally increase with age. However, no scholars have previously looked at both gender and age together to show how perceptions of men and women may differ. In a series of studies, the same researchers set out to do just that.

In an initial study, the researchers presented participants with a headshot of a hypothetical supervisor at a tech company—either a man, “Steve Wilson”, or a woman, “Sue Miller.” They were then given identical information about either Steve’s or Sue’s career and asked to rate them on adjectives such as “forceful” or “gentle” in middle age compared to when they were younger.

True to former studies, the participants rated both individuals higher on characteristics of agency as they got older. However, even with identical descriptions and such little information by which to judge, the participants rated Sue lower on characteristics related to warmth as she aged, while Steve’s ratings didn’t change. “It’s just stunning,” commented the lead author. “These stereotypes are so hard-wired and deeply entrenched that they come out even when absolutely identical information is provided about a man and a woman.”

In a second study, the researchers asked nearly 500 professionals in executive leadership classes to ask real-life colleagues to perform an assessment measuring them on attributes including assertiveness and agreeableness. Interestingly, women received the same ratings on warmth regardless of their age; however, middle-aged men in the class were rated higher on warmth than were younger men.

“In these circumstances, women were not perceived as less warm in an absolute sense, but they’re still being perceived as less warm compared to men,” they said. “So anytime they are being considered in juxtaposition to men at that age group, they may be at a disadvantage.”

In the final study, the researchers went back to the original source of the research to analyze a large dataset of university professor evaluations, allowing them to literally compare a person’s performance to their younger selves to see how it changed with age (with control for factors such as whether professors had children or took on extra non-teaching work as they rose through the ranks.)

Sure enough, they found that male professors’ evaluations remained consistent over time. Meanwhile, evaluations for female professors quickly declined from their initial peak in their 30s, hitting a low point around age 47. After that, they steadily increased again, achieving parity with men by their early 60s.

This is an especially dramatic finding because teaching is a skill that should improve with age and experience, strongly implicating stereotypes rather than actual performance.

To drill down further into the reasons behind the decline, the researchers also analyzed the actual comments written by students using linguistic software that identified hundreds of adjectives. They found that words such as “caring,” “nice,” and “helpful,” declined for women along with their scores. “When women were getting their lowest teaching ratings, there was an uptick in complaints about their personality,” the lead researcher said.

So, what? There has been a lot of research in areas related to this—particularly on the connection between women’s physical attractiveness, their perceived trustworthiness and their perceived competence. It’s commonly referred to as the “attractiveness halo effect.”

The criteria used in this study make it stand out as a very significant piece of research.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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