Have you ever been told that you would not be good at something because of your gender or age or race?
• Women are detail-oriented.
• Men see the big picture.
• Women are better at multitasking.
• Men can only focus on one activity at a time.
• Women are nurturers.
• Men are leaders.
• Women are more organized.
• Men are more productive.
The above statements are all examples of stereotypes, and most of us would claim we do not believe them, let alone allow them to affect our performance. Yet we are continuously exposed to this type of message, sometimes overtly and sometimes subliminally. There appears to be a strong, even if unconscious, link between our cognition and our emotion, and stereotyping can affect us even when we rationally dismiss it.
To prove this, Maryjane Wraga of Smith College used an MRI brain scan as she honed in on the typical stereotype that men have more spatial ability. Using women volunteers, one group was told that women do better on a “Tetris”-type test than men while others were informed that men are more capable on this type of puzzle. The result was that those women exposed to the negative stereotype of men doing better than women made 14 percent more errors. The scan showed how the stereotype anxiety interacted with brain areas involved in spatial analysis, even as the women claimed they were not influenced by the statement.
On the same track, when women were told that a math test was gender-neutral, they did better than when reminded that “boys do better than girls in math,” according to Joshua Aronson of New York University. Even having to check off a gender box prior to the start of an exam can affect the outcome because at some point we have all absorbed messages that implied limitations.
In 2005 Rutgers University conducted a survey and found that three-fourths of women believe that they perform better when required to multi task. One-third of the men surveyed agreed with this assumption.
In rebuttal, Paul Burgess, a neuroscientist from the University College in London found that there is no significant difference between the genders in this ability. However, he too found that perceptions among the sexes do vary.
A study by psychology professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University (published in Psychological Science, February 2007) delved into the power of your mind relating to a workout. Her test compared two groups of housekeepers working at a Boston hotel. One group was told that what they did in their regular routines was great exercise while the other group was told nothing. Although the two sets of housekeeping routines did not change, the first group demonstrated positive physical results when they believed they were getting a workout. That crew lost weight and fat, and their blood pressure dropped. While this loss was not in the double digits, it was across the board for everyone.
Professor Langer’s explanation is, “If you can put the mind in a healthy place, you can have dramatic physiological consequences.” Now we see that it is not just physiological responses that can be evoked by suggestion. It may be impossible to separate an emotional reaction from a cognitive exercise, even when we do not consciously believe the statement and do not think we are allowing it to affect us.
If you want to develop the most productive work environment for your company or department, be careful what messages you might send to your staff. Also be aware of any negative insinuations that may be directed toward you.
With the right training, you CAN be an organized person and an expert time manager. There is nothing gender specific about the ability to achieve a high level of productivity when given the right tools.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Denise Landers is the author of “Destination: Organization, A Week by Week Journey.” She helps businesses and individuals accomplish more with productive office systems. Reach her at (602) 412-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org.