Stereotypes at Work
Summary and Keywords
Stereotypes are a central concern in society and in the workplace. Stereotypes are cognitions that drive what individuals know, believe, and expect from others as a result of their social identities. Stereotypes predict how individuals view and treat one another at work, often resulting in inaccurate generalizations about individuals based on their group membership. As such, it’s important to break down and combat the use of stereotypes in decision-making at work. If stereotypes can be overcome in the workplace, fairness and equity in organizations becomes more likely.
Stereotypes continue to be a central concern in society and the workplace. Stereotype-based thinking persistently fuels biases that negatively impact marginalized employees, including women and minorities, and result in exclusion from positions of power and authority in organizations (see Deloitte, 2017, for U.S.-based statistics). For instance, it is evident that stereotypes continue to fuel inequality, even at the societal level (e.g., Caprioli, 2005; Glick & Fiske, 2001). Even as employers have become increasingly aware of, and address, certain kinds of problematic stereotypes, others start to become more prominent. For example, stereotypes that associate immigrants as violent perpetrators of crime make it harder for organizations to hire and retain critical non-citizen employees, and foster interpersonal tensions and mistrust, as well as acts of discrimination against immigrants. Further, post-9/11, negative stereotypes associated with Muslims have strengthened, potentially creating enhanced employment hurdles for those who belong to this religious group (King & Ahmad, 2010).
In a time period where employers recognize the fuller magnitude of stereotypes in shaping critical dynamics in society and workplaces, this article takes stock of the workplace stereotyping literature. Prior research is extensive, and thus our goal is to provide a brief summary of key insights from historical and contemporary research regarding stereotypes, including the definition and characteristics of stereotypes and why stereotypes form. The article additionally explores implications of stereotypes for society and the workplace. Finally, we conclude by considering where employers can go from here with regard to stereotypes.
Definition and Characteristics of Stereotypes
Allport (1954, p. 191) defined stereotypes as “exaggerated belief[s] associated with a social category” over 60 years ago. Since then, many scholars have asked: What characterizes a stereotype? Years of research demonstrates that stereotypes have several key properties.
First, stereotypes are comprised of “cognitive structures that provide knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about individuals based on their social group membership” (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011, pp. 216–217). In other words, stereotypes are best understood as patterns of thought which contain information describing social categories (e.g., racial and ethnic groups, gender, age groups, etc.). Through stereotypes, people predict who a person is, what they are like in terms of values and personality, and how they are likely to behave. Although much of the psychological research on stereotypes focuses on assumptions influencing person perception, sociological research emphasizes that the patterns of thought associated with stereotypes are also embedded in social and institutional structures. Evidence of these patterns of thought can be found in informal and formal practices of social and institutional structures in society that function according to a social stratification approach, in which certain kinds of people, based on beliefs associated with social group membership, have greater access to power and opportunity (Rothman, 2016). In other words, stereotype-based assumptions can be found both at the micro (individual) and macro (social and structural) levels of society.
A second characteristic of stereotypes considered here concerns the accuracy of stereotypes. Research demonstrates that, although stereotypes can be based on overly simplified or distorted images of individuals who belong to certain social categories (see the foundational work by Judd & Park, 1993), stereotypes can also be accurate. This conundrum can be understood if one recognizes the nuances in stereotypes. For instance, at times, stereotypes have little or no connection to reality, such as the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews have horns or tails, even though such fantastical beliefs can be widespread. Conversely, a recent review of research shows that many stereotypes can often be accurate descriptions of propensities within a social category (Hall & Goh, 2017; Jussim, Crawford, & Rubinstein, 2015). Instead of taking an all-or-nothing stance on stereotypes as right or wrong, recently scholars have urged for a more nuanced perspective that focuses on when, how, and to what extent stereotypes are accurate (Hall & Goh, 2017; Hilton & von Hippel, 1996).
A next characteristic important to stereotypes is that they are often fixed or difficult to change. In other words, even when faced with disconfirming information, individuals may still continue to hold stereotypes that do not apply. There are many reasons why individuals adhere to stereotypes, even with disconfirming information. For instance, as Hilton and von Hippel (1996) explain, when faced with alternative explanations about another person, perceivers tend to put more weight on stereotype-confirming than disconfirming information. People may also view others who disconfirm stereotypes as “exceptions to the rule” (e.g., “you aren’t like the rest of men”), which allows a perceiver to maintain group stereotypes while subtyping the person as different from the rest (Richards & Hewstone, 2001).
Finally, stereotypes are complex at the level of the targeted person. For instance, a majority of people experience a combination of positive and negative stereotypes associated with a group to which they belong; for example, in a U.S. context, a Jewish person might be stereotyped as smart and hard-working, but also cheap and untrustworthy. Furthermore, individuals are comprised of intersectional and complex, multiple identities. Some identities (such as being upper class) may be associated with positive stereotypes, whereas stereotypes associated other identities, such as one’s ethnicity, may be predominantly negative. Certain social category memberships will be more salient in particular settings, and thus the basis for stereotyping more than other social category memberships (Hogg & Turner, 1987). As such, as we discuss further, the meaning of social category memberships can change across and within cultural contexts (Sawyer, 2018).
In sum, stereotypes can be understood as complex cognitive beliefs that represent the distortions or generalizations of a group, which do not apply to all individuals. Stereotypes can be accurate to some degree in certain situations or at particular times. Though stereotypes may be problematic in social perception and in the treatment of individuals and groups in society because they create unjust inequalities, they can be resistant to change. Furthermore, stereotypes’ effects extend beyond interpersonal perceptions, and the behaviors that arise due to these views, to shape how major institutions, such as the courts, educational organizations, workplaces, and housing, treat certain members of positively or negatively stereotyped social categories. Through these individual and institutional forces, positive stereotypes can be beneficial to the person being perceived (by providing a positive halo, and in turn, preferences and privilege) while negatively stereotypes may be harmful (causing someone to experience marginalization or unjust action). Yet individuals’ identities are complex and multiple; thus, stereotypes produce an array of positive and negative impacts on individuals and groups.
Characteristics of Stereotypes
Since the 1970s (Terborg, 1977), stereotypes have generally been thought to take two forms: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive stereotypes tell us how group members behave, what they prefer, or what they are competent at accomplishing (Fiske, 1993). Thus, when encountering someone from a different racial group than one’s own, what one assumes about members of that racial group will anchor that person’s interaction with the racial outgroup member. In other words, preconceived notions are likely to shape the content and tone of the interaction. When many individuals share the same descriptive stereotypes, those in the stereotyped group may notice patterns in interactions that are unsettling or off-putting.
Similarly, prescriptive stereotypes convey information about how stereotyped individuals should behave (Fiske, 1993). This means that a descriptive stereotype can become prescriptive when thinking moves from “this is how X group is” to “this is how X group should be.” The latter set of stereotypes draws boundaries around what will be considered acceptable for those who are being stereotyped. Drawing on the prior example, prescriptive stereotypes would take hold if an individual from a different racial group behaved in a counter-stereotypical fashion and was socially punished for “stepping out of bounds.” In this way, stereotyping is linked to power, given that it draws greater boundaries for some groups compared to others and limits the potential of group members to move beyond the stereotypes associated with their group without social punishment.
Thus, once stereotypes are formed, they can serve both a content-based and evaluative purpose. In fact, research demonstrates that stereotyping and evaluation are separate but linked processes that may have differential outcomes (Amodio & Devine, 2006; Dovidio, Brigham, Johnson, & Gaertner, 1996; Esses & Dovidio, 2002). Although stereotypes are thought to be cognitively based, evaluations of others are thought to be affective in nature. In fact, a meta-analysis has demonstrated that affective bias and cognitive bias are separate from one another, as well as predictive of different prejudicial attitudes and behaviors (Dovidio, Esses, Beach, & Gaertner, 2004). Specifically, stereotyping was found to relate more strongly to cognitive links between group membership and attributes (i.e., endorsing stereotypes about a group more strongly in a survey, showing support for biased policies), compared to evaluation, which was linked to interpersonal, affective behaviors (i.e., social distance, avoiding eye contact, etc.).
It follows, then, that stereotyping may be overcome by deliberately attempting to use unbiased information for decision-making, while evaluation may be changed by restructuring affective reward processes in the brain (Amodio & Devine, 2006; Amodio et al., 2004). As a result, it is important to note that stereotyping is a fundamental basic process that can affect judgments that are made but may not always result in evaluative behavior (although this is often the case). However, using individuating information to make decisions is much more cognitively effortful and time-consuming (Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986). Indeed, research has shown that stereotyping saves mental resources that could be dedicated to other tasks, and that individuals will be more likely to unconsciously use stereotypes in overwhelming or threatening situations (Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994).
For example, researchers have demonstrated that cognitive busyness makes it less likely that stereotypes will form (i.e., individuals pay less attention to stereotypes of others when they are cognitively distracted), but that people are more likely to use existing stereotypes when they are cognitively busy (i.e., individuals rely on the ease of stereotypes when they need to divert their energy elsewhere) (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991). However, evidence also shows that individuals can override these automatic, resource-saving processes if they have the motivation to strip themselves of bias. For example, if individuals rely on one another to get tasks done or if they are highly familiar with one another, avoiding the use of stereotypes may be preferred (Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990). Thus, extensive research finds that stereotypes are unconscious judgments that individuals make, which are particularly likely to be deployed under circumstances of heavy cognitive load and/or time pressure. Indeed, researchers (e.g., Tetlock & Kim, 1987) have found that when people are told that they will be held accountable for and have to defend their judgments of others, they are less likely to use stereotypes in decision-making.
Overall, stereotypes have both elements of controllability as well as automaticity which guide them (Bargh, 1994), providing some hope that people can avoid costs of stereotypes when they are encouraged to engage in controlled decision-making. Further, it has been demonstrated that having a high need for cognition (e.g., the tendency to wish to engage in activities that require complex thinking; D’Agostino & Fincher-Kiefer, 1992) or having the motivation to appear non-prejudiced (Devine, 1989) may allow individuals to overcome their urge to automatically stereotype others. Overall, although the process of stereotyping is automatic in that it may not be perceptible or consciously chosen, it is possible to put forth effort in order to stop such process (Bargh, 1994). Thus, although the widespread use of stereotyping is a cause for concern, people can choose to introduce more effortful, less stereotypical thinking into their decision-making processes, which gives hope to researchers and society at large.
The Formation and Use of Stereotypes
Now that we have considered the definition and characteristics of stereotypes, we explore key foundational research which addresses how stereotypes form. The most common perspective held by researchers is that stereotypes form and are used because they serve a functional purpose for people. Most researchers propose that stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts, which occur unintentionally and without consciousness (Bargh, 1989), that allow people to simplify their complex world through easily accessed, quick heuristics that sort the world into meaningful categories (Bodenhausen, Macrae & Sherman, 1999). By allowing for the simplification of information and related responses, stereotypes save energy (Allport, 1954; Andersen, Klatzky, & Murray, 1990; Bodenhausen & Lichtenstein, 1987; Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Macrae et al., 1994; Tajfel, 1969). Cutting down on effortful cognitive processing, stereotypes also save time as well because people can use information contained in stereotypes to make quick judgments about the world around them.
Although the majority of research focuses on unconscious, cognitive efficiency as a key motivator for the formation and use of stereotypes, stereotyping also allows individuals who have greater power to control others who have less power. In a classic article, Susan Fiske (1993) argues that stereotypes are intrinsically controlling of others and allow those in power to maintain and justify the status quo. Thus, power begets greater power through the maintenance of stereotypes. Fiske (1993) asserts that although those in lower power positions have the motivation to understand individuating information about those in power because powerful people control their outcomes, people who have greater power do not have an incentive to move beyond simple stereotypes in understanding those in lower power because these individuals are unimportant to the powerful person’s life. Taken together, it is evident that people can actively use stereotypes in a bid for more power, to maintain their power, and to keep lower status individuals marginalized and exclude them from power and authority. Despite the complexity associated with how stereotypes affect our judgments, their effects are far-reaching. In order to examine the role that stereotypes play in determining outcomes for those who are negatively stereotyped, we review the literature on the implications of stereotyping in society more broadly, and then in the workplace more specifically.
Implications of Negative Stereotyping for the Person Stereotyped
As we alluded to previously, stereotypes can play a role in how individuals form judgments about others and influence individuals’ perceptions of the world around them. In fact, research has suggests that stereotypes may guide how individuals view others’ behaviors as indicative of their essential nature (i.e., “who they are” as people) and, as a result, change the way people decide to punish or reward others for their merits or transgressions (e.g., stronger punishments or greater rewards when behaviors are seen as being rooted in one’s essential nature, as opposed to merely how they are acting in the moment). With regard to negative stereotypes, for example, researchers have found that when individuals commit an offense, if the offense is stereotypical for their group, they are more likely to be viewed as being at risk for committing the offense again and to be punished more strongly for the transgression (Bodenhausen & Wyer, 1985). Further, researchers have demonstrated that being exposed to a Black target conjured negative stereotypical views about that individual in the short term and that, even if these negative stereotypical views dissipated over time, they could be reinstated if participants were led to believe that the target disagreed with them on a substantive issue (Kunda, Davies, Adams, & Spencer, 2002). Thus, it appears that stereotypes can be activated when individuals are interacting with or being asked to make judgments about those for whom stereotypical schemas exist.
These findings may be exacerbated by the accessibility of attitudes about a particular group and the ways in which these attitudes influence categorization. For example, researchers have found that being primed to think about attitudes toward particular groups made participants more likely to categorize exemplars of those groups in ways that aligned with the prime (Smith, Fazio, & Cejka, 1996). Taking this a step further, researchers have also found that being exposed to stereotypical words associated with a particular group can cause participants to conjure additional stereotypes without a prompt and to behaviorally enact these additional stereotypes. For example, researchers found that priming participants with negative stereotypes about the elderly conjured additional stereotypes about the elderly (e.g., slowness) and caused participants to behaviorally manifest these stereotypes (e.g., by walking more slowly to the elevator after the task was complete) (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) or by showing slower response latencies (Dijksterhuis, Spears, & Lépinasse, 2001; Kawakami, Young & Dovidio, 2002). Similarly, participants primed with photos of Black individuals reacted in a more hostile fashion when their ability to complete their study tasks was disrupted (Bargh et al., 1996). Thus, it appears that stereotype priming tasks have an impact on the extent to which individuals tap into existing stereotypical schemas and may have an impact on their own behaviors toward members of stereotyped groups after activation has occurred.
Therefore, although stereotyping does affect the cognitions and emotions of those who are engaging in stereotyping, the implications of stereotypes on those who are stereotyped are greater than the implications on those who hold strong stereotypes (Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001). Stereotype threat occurs when individuals are doubly affected by a negative stereotype—both because of their schema for the stereotype and because of its personal relevance to one’s own identity. Stereotype threat occurs when individuals who are primed with a negative stereotype about a group that they belong to (i.e., making gender salient before a female student begins a math exam), creating conditions in which their performance is more likely to align with the stereotype than to accurately reflect their abilities or skills (Aronson, Quinn, & Spencer, 1998; Levy, 1996; Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). For example, individuals with physical disabilities have been shown to suffer from ongoing stereotype threat, which undermines their feelings of integrity and, ultimately, their performance (Silverman & Cohen, 2014). Further, even those who have been historically associated with positive stereotypes can experience stereotype threat when compared to a group that has a slightly more positive stereotype associated with their ability in a particular domain (Aronson et al., 1999; White vs. Asian males’ performance on a math exam), particularly when that domain is highly self-relevant (Aronson et al., 1999) or when participants feel a lack of belonging within the domain (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Researchers assert that stereotype threat occurs because the risk of being stereotyped is recognized by the individual completing the stereotype-relevant task, depleting cognitive resources that are necessary for success (Schmader & Johns, 2003). As a result, those who are negatively stereotyped in a particular domain may suffer from a self-fulfilling prophecy—their fears of inferiority actually serve to produce inferior effects. It is worth noting, however that recent research implies that stereotype threat effects may be smaller in the field, compared to in the lab (Shewach, Sackett, & Quint, 2019). Thus, it is important to continue studying the impacts of stereotype threat in various settings across demographic groups.
Additionally, those who are negatively stereotyped may suffer because stereotypes can promote negative attitudes toward members of social groups, which breeds prejudice. In fact, although small, the effects of scores on Implicit Attitudes Tests (IAT) have been linked meta-analytically with measures of explicit attitudes (Hofmann, Gawronski, Gschwendner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005). Further, verbal and nonverbal friendliness have been shown to decrease in cross-race interaction for those who exhibit higher levels of implicit bias (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). In this way, stereotypes (associations of various characteristics with groups) drive prejudice (attitudes that reflect evaluation of a group), which increases discrimination (biased behavior toward groups) (Dovidio, Hewstone, Glick, & Esses, 2010). The literature on this topic is not conclusive, however. For example, the measurement of implicit bias, as well as the interpretation of the meaning of some findings associated with the IAT, have been called into question in recent work (e.g., Oswald, Mitchell, Blanton, Jaccard, & Tetlock, 2013). Despite these debates, it seems clear that although anyone can be affected by stereotypes, those who are negatively stereotyped suffer doubly—both because of the effect of the stereotype on their self-relevant attitudes and because of the likelihood that stereotypes will drive others’ negative perceptions of their group.
Implications of Negative Stereotypes at Work
From a fiscal and legal perspective, the extent to which workplace environments promote or undermine negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination has strong implications for the lived experiences of employees who are affected by it. Stereotyping, from a cognitive perspective, works the same way at work as it does outside of a work context because individuals bring their stereotypes and attitudes into workplace contexts. Further, given what researchers have uncovered about the conditions under which stereotypes are more likely to be suppressed, the workplace may present uniquely difficult challenges for those attempting to minimize negative bias at work. Because suppressing one’s stereotypes takes both concentrated effort and motivational energy, doing so is no small challenge to overcome (Eagly & Heilman, 2008).
For those who are negatively stereotyped, the workplace ramifications of these stereotypes can be grave. Starting with stereotype threat, employees and managers may underperform simply because they are aware of negative stereotypes that are associated with their identity in particular domains. For example, in a study of 166 African American managers, researchers found that being the solo racial minority in a managerial role predicted stereotype threat, which in turn predicted the extent to which individuals avoided getting direct feedback from their supervisors and the extent to which they discounted performance feedback when they did receive it (Roberson, Deitch, Brief, & Block, 2003). This is important because these feedback-avoidant behaviors could have direct implications for how employees grow and develop over time. Similarly, research demonstrates that women in finance who experience stereotype threat were less likely to recommend their field to other women and had lower sense of well-being, due to a lack of perceived alignment between their personal identity and work identity (von Hippel, Sekaquaptewa, & McFarlane, 2015). Thus, although a positive societal goal is to increase the presence of minority leaders in the workplace, this goal is unlikely to be achieved if women and minorities feel uncomfortable and burnt out or are unable to develop at the same rate as their peers.
One of the major reasons why stereotypes are related to workplace outcomes is because individuals hold stereotypes about both demographic groups and about job roles. When the stereotypes that people hold about a group don’t align with the stereotypes that align with a job role, members of the group are not seen as prototypical and are less likely to be selected into or evaluated positively in those roles. For example, the stereotype content model proposes that, cross-culturally, individuals judge one another based on the extent to which they are perceived as warm and competent (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008; Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). These perceptions vary as a function of status, with low-status groups being more likely to be perceived as either warm and incompetent and high-status groups being perceived as cold and competent (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2018). Of interest is the fact the stereotype content model also maintains its validity across cultures (Cuddy et al., 2008). Directly applying stereotyping concepts to the workplace, role incongruity theory (Eagly & Karau, 2002) purports that when individuals hold stereotypes about the attributes necessary to perform a particular job function, they look for those who are perceived to embody those stereotypes when searching for someone to fill the role. For example, with regard to gender, because leadership characteristics have been historically associated with stereotypes about maleness (e.g., less communal and more agentic; Schein, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1989, 1993; Powell, Butterfield, & Parent, 2002), females are less likely to be seen as being fit for leadership roles (e.g., more communal and less agentic), particularly when the organization has been performing well (Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, & Bongiorno, 2011; i.e., the “glass cliff” phenomenon). This bias decreases the likelihood that women will be selected into leadership roles in high-performing organizations, making it harder for them to be evaluated favorably if they are given the opportunity. Interestingly, the “think manager-think male” effect hold across cultures as well (Schein, Mueller, Lituchy, & Liu, 1996). Because of the presence of stereotypes and a potential lack of perceived congruity with job role expectations, other groups have suffered the brunt of negative attitudes and assumptions at work as well, including racial minorities (e.g., Deitch et al., 2003; Sanchez & Brock, 1996) and LGBT employees (e.g., Ragins, Singh, & Cornwell, 2007; Thoroughgood, Sawyer, & Webster, 2017; Waldo, 1999). In fact, something as subtle as the name on a résumé can influence whether or not candidates are seen as viable for a particular job role (see Pager, 2007). Thus, the presence of stereotypes in the workplace, a context which requires a lot of highly consequential decision-making, can lead to inequality based on the expectations and evaluations that result from holding employees accountable to these stereotypes.
Further, intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1989, 1991, 1992) suggests that overlapping layers of identities can combine to create unique stereotypes associated with the intersections among one’s identities in the workplace. For example, women of color report higher levels of harassment and discrimination than men or White women (Berdahl & Moore, 2006; Buchanan & Fitzgerald, 2008; Weber & Higginbotham, 1997). With regard to sexual orientation, gay men are often viewed less positively than lesbian women at work (Blashill & Powlishta, 2009; Salter & Liberman, 2016). Further, age may interact with other identities to predict differential work outcomes depending on unique intersections of age and other minority statuses (Chiu, Chan, Snape, & Redman, 2001; Posthuma & Campion, 2009). For example, older men may experience stronger negative outcomes associated with discrimination, such as impacts on job-related well-being and satisfaction, compared to older women (Taylor, McLoughlin, Meyer, & Brooke, 2013). Finally, disproportionate numbers of disabled men are represented in feminine, low-status jobs, compared to men without disabilities, because being disabled is stereotypically associated with being “weak” and therefore, less masculine (Woodhams, Lupton, & Cowing, 2015). Thus, it’s important to recognize that stereotypes operate in complicated and nuanced ways, creating the impetus for researchers to ask more complex questions and for practitioners to drive more specific solutions for combatting bias.
Where to from Here? Future Directions for Workplace Stereotyping
As a result of the current state of information-sharing technology, the global political arena, and changing workplace demographics, it is important to try to uncover ways to decrease prejudice associated with stereotyping in the workplace in order to create more equitable organizations worldwide. A recent review made a variety of suggestions for decreasing prejudice at work and beyond, including retraining stereotypical associations, enhancing intergroup contact, using persuasive argumentation, activating counter-stereotypical exemplars, enhancing motives for decreasing bias, and creating behavioral plans to tackle manifestations of bias (Lai, Hoffman, & Nosek, 2013). However, there remains a need to test these means in the field and to determine how these methods might be practically applied to a workplace context. For this reason, we offer suggestions for future research on discouraging the formation and application of stereotypes in the workplace.
First, one conclusion that might be drawn from prior research is the importance of moving beyond implicit bias training in workplace in order to reduce stereotypical thinking in organizations. Many large organizations, such as Google and Starbucks, have invested a lot of time and resources into unconscious bias training for employees. However, research shows that this kind of training has not resulted in the attitudinal and structural shifts toward equality for which organizations had hoped (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016). This may be because simply being aware of biases isn’t enough to change employees to become less reliant on stereotypes or to motivate employees to stop using them. As mentioned, employees often have easy access to very well-established stereotypical sets of associations that they have built up over the course of their lives. This means that it will likely take more than a simple bias awareness training to create conditions under which these biases may become “unlearned.” As suggested by Lai et al. (2013), it may be useful to measure the outcomes of trainings which serve to deprogram stereotypical associations as a first step in solving the problem. Further, unconscious bias trainings may not be as motivational as they could be in inspiring individuals to combat their own biases. It’s possible that long-term exposure to various groups that have been historically linked with negative stereotypes, and feeling an affective connection to these groups, may create the conditions under which employees are able to truly become motivated to see the world differently and to encourage others to do so as well.
One of the major tenets of the contact hypothesis is that the amount of contact has to be sufficient in order for attitudes about outgroups to change (Pettigrew, 1998). Although it would not be wise to subject those who are already vulnerable to stereotyping to have to bear the burden of educating those who rely on negative stereotypes to make judgments, diversity and inclusion programming in organizations might involve guest speakers, creating respectful intergroup dialogues, or facilitating panel events in which individuals from various groups can share their experiences and feelings with one another. Indeed, research has demonstrated that moods and emotions can impact the extent to which individuals act on implicit prejudice (Huntsinger & Sinclair, 2010; Huntsinger, Sinclair, & Clore, 2009). Overall, more research is needed in this area, so that practitioners are aware of how to create more thorough training schemes that address both the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that may lead to stereotype formation and application at work. Merely being aware of one’s biases is just not enough to create the impetus for change.
Second, much of the research on stereotypes at work focuses on the ways in which individuals apply stereotypical thinking to the detriment of others or on training schemes that attempt to root out existing issues with discrimination and prejudice. However, by focusing only on the negative, employers might miss an important understanding of what does work in decreasing stereotyping and prejudice. For quite some time, organizational scholars have been urging researchers to remember not to only focus on deficit models, where researchers fix things that appear broken, but to also pay attention to abundance models, in which things are working in an ideal fashion (Cameron, 2012). This means that we need to study discrimination and negative stereotyping in order to root it out, but also that employees should be looking for workplaces in which individuals do not seem reliant on stereotypes for decision-making and in which prejudice and discrimination are infrequent or hopefully nonexistent. Further, instead of seeking the absence of stereotyping, employees may be well served to search for employers who are actively inclusive, not just free from bias. What can be learned from these contexts that might be applied elsewhere? What seems to be driving these a-stereotypical workplaces? Did they select employees who seemed open-minded from the start? Did they train employees to question their own biases in a way that was cognitively and motivationally effective? Understanding how to learn from “bright spots” is becoming a more popular way to approach research on prejudice and discrimination (Lyons, Pek, & Wessel, 2017). Research on stereotyping could benefit by asking questions that approach the research in a more comprehensive way as well. In this fashion, researchers may be able to understand not only what to avoid in order to combat the formation and application of negative stereotypes, but also what to embrace in order to promote the abundance of anti-stereotypical thought.
Further, it’s possible that organizational contexts might make it more likely that employees will drive inclusive environments. For example, research has shown that competitive organizational climates can cause stress, particularly for those low in trait competitiveness (Fletcher, Major, & Davis, 2008). Further, competitive climates can create ambiguity because individuals may work hard but not necessarily see the direct link between hours worked and outcomes (Fletcher et al., 2008; Keller, Spurk, Baumeler, & Hirschi, 2016), thus, employees may be distracted by trying to determine how to get ahead in a cut-throat environment. Under these conditions, employees may be more likely to use automatic processes, such as stereotypes, given they are already cognitively distracted by aspects of the environment. Further, threat has been shown to increase stereotypical responses (Kay, Jost, & Young, 2005) because it promotes ambiguity and fear. For this reason, organizations which are downsizing or which suffer from a lack of transparency regarding how employment decisions are made may also trigger the usage of stereotypes and hinder inclusive behaviors. Thus, it would be helpful for researchers to better understand the role of various organizational climates play in shaping the extent to which inclusive environments are enacted. If companies intend to breed competition but also focus on diversity and inclusion, their efforts may contradict each other. Understanding how to promote diversity and inclusion, without creating unnecessary cultural roadblocks, is key to creating more equitable organizations overall.
It is also important to understand how various stereotypes operate in a global economy. As discussed, stereotypes are formed through exposure to associations between various characteristics and categories. This means that stereotype formation is context-dependent. Operating in a global economy may mean that the types of stereotypes that exist, as well as the groups which are stereotyped, may vary greatly across cultural contexts and within organizations. Researching the extent to which these diverse stereotypes exist within organizations and measuring the impact of training schemes which recognize the “diversity of diversity” across national, regional, state, and local contexts (Sawyer, 2018), may be crucial for accurately addressing the extent to which stereotypes exist within global organizations. For example, it may be necessary to take direct action in decreasing stereotypes about those from various social classes in country contexts that have more formalized structures for supporting stereotype formation in this direction (i.e., India) or to focus on decreasing stereotypes regarding different religious groups in areas that have a history of religious warfare (i.e., Ireland or Israel). Studying how stereotypes operate across contexts may help to create comprehensive and accurate plans for decreasing bias and increasing inclusivity in organizations. Additionally, examining how identity intersections (Crenshaw, 1989; e.g., layered identities that affect how individuals perceive themselves and others (Black female, as opposed to just Black or just female)) may uncover the process by which specific stereotype formation occurs and which interventions work to reduce the formation of these narrower, negative stereotypes. Overall, thinking about how stereotypes actually operate—globally and intersectionally—will help researchers to better address the practical reality of stereotyping in organizations.
Finally, it is important to examine how workplaces themselves might perpetuate stereotypical thinking. Although many organizations offer diversity and inclusion training schemes (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016), they may be reinforcing the stereotypes they wish to erase in more subtle ways. Without increased representation of underrepresented groups in counter-stereotypical positions, organizations may serve to reinforce the cognitive structures that they are trying to undermine through diversity and inclusion efforts. Even without formalizing these stereotypical associations by filling job roles with those who are “expected” to be found within them, informal norms can also serve to reinforce stereotypical cognitions. For example, employers are more likely to expect that women will perform altruistic behaviors in the workplace, compared to men (Heilman, 2012). When men perform altruistic behaviors their performance gets a boost and do not suffer consequences when they don’t perform these behaviors (Allen, 2006), but women’s altruistic behaviors are not rewarded. In fact, research has demonstrated that women are punished if they don’t perform altruistic behaviors at work, despite the fact that they are not given a reward when they do (Heilman & Chen, 2005). If employees see women in their organizations performing stereotypically feminine behaviors at work (such as helping behaviors) more frequently than men, their cognitive associations between “femaleness” and “altruism” will be reinforced by the work environment. Thus, it is important for organizations to think not only about what they are saying with regard to stereotyping and prejudice, but also what they are doing to decrease the likelihood that stereotypical associations are being made. Who is most likely to coordinate the signing of birthday cards, the taking of notes in meetings, or the office happy hour? If organizations aren’t conscious about the ways in which stereotypical tasks may be assigned to group members, the organization itself may serve as a foil to its own diversity and inclusion efforts.
Transforming Practice Through Scientific Research on Stereotypes
As with all research in the organizational sciences, creating a stronger link between research and practice would help to facilitate decreasing stereotypes at work. However, the scientist–practitioner gap still exists (Aguinis et al., 2017; Levy, 2017). Thus, despite the mission of many academic institutions being to promote awareness of research in the organizational sciences in the general public (SIOP, 2018, para. 1), there remains a need for increased knowledge sharing from researchers to employees in the “real world.” Unfortunately, there are few available exemplars for making management research widely available in an easy-to-grasp format. Although the open science movement is making strides in promoting greater transparency and visibility in research, easy ways to tackle making science more accessible in order to promote the public good remain elusive. As such, it is useful to provide innovative, real-world examples for broadening the impact of research that addresses important societal issues, such as stereotyping, so that those who are interested in spreading high-quality research findings to the general public in a more effective and efficient way are able to learn from similar others.
In general, it is well known that the academic realm suffers from a limited view of how to create impact with scholarly work (Aguinis, Shapiro, Antonacopoulou, & Cummings, 2014). For the most part, academic work is judged based on the extent to which it is cited by academic colleagues in the references section of other academic publications (Aguinis et al., 2014; Aguinis, Suárez-González, Lannelongue, & Joo, 2012; Pettigrew 2011). This metric of “success” for academic work is problematic because it only considers one stakeholder—academic researchers—in quantifying how important scientific knowledge is purported to be (Aguinis et al., 2014). This is of concern when considering societal-level impacts work on stereotypes, given it limits what is rewarded in the field. If researchers are solely rewarded for increasing their citation counts, the field is essentially constraining outcomes regarding research on stereotypes to being singly focused on academics as stakeholders. This is problematic because the production of research on stereotypes has the potential to impact a variety of stakeholders—private organizations, public organizations, non-profit organizations, governmental bodies, students, and individual employees.
Focusing solely on the academic community as an audience for judging the merits of academic work limits the impact of stereotyping research by abstracting broader applications of our findings that might have the ability to create positive societal change. Regardless of whether or not academic researchers find their work has made into other academics’ final manuscripts, research on stereotypes in the organizational sciences may lead to important societal advances. Further, the focus on academics as sole stakeholders in stereotyping research (and research in general) also implicitly discourages researchers from exploring stereotype-related topics that may have meaningful applications but are not as theoretically compelling. Thus, because researchers may not perceive structural support for spreading research-based practices for decreasing stereotyping to the public, there are not many effective academic examples of how to accomplish this goal. If academics and practitioners worked together to test different methodologies for decreasing stereotyping, evaluative attitudes, and discrimination, researchers would have access to sizable samples in which to test theories for stereotype reduction and corporations would have the ability to implement cutting-edge techniques for creating more inclusive work environments.
Overall, the literature on stereotyping has a long-standing history within psychology and related sciences. However, there is still much to learn with regard to how to decrease the maintenance and application of stereotyping at work. As a result, it is key for researchers and organizations alike to study and implement solutions that address the pernicious effects of stereotyping at various points along the stereotype formation to discrimination continuum. Further, in order to create inclusive environments, all stakeholders need to focus on both eliminating bias and on enacting inclusive behaviors more broadly. For example, it may be the case that focusing on and modeling employees who don’t use stereotypes to inform their decisions may be more impactful than talking about the negative impact of biased employees at work (Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015). Thus, being strategic about how employees are encouraged to focus their energy in order to decrease bias and increase inclusivity will be crucial for determining if organizations are able to drive successful diversity and inclusion initiatives overall.
In sum, researchers understand a lot about how stereotypes are formed and applied. In organizations, researchers often try to understand how attitudes drive prejudicial, discriminatory behaviors at work. However, if scholars can better understand how to erode existing stereotypes and to create workspaces which serve a counter-stereotypical function, greater workplace equity might be achieved. Without focusing on the fundamental building blocks of prejudicial attitudes, we may always be taking a “band-aid” approach. As such, this article urges researchers to ask bigger questions about how to change the structure of employees’ thinking as opposed to simply the manifestation of this categorical thinking at a behavioral level.
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