Given my interest in so-called masculine fields, such as math and science, I have always mostly been surrounded by men. When I got my first permanent contract with a bioscience institute, I was somewhat oblivious to how male-dominated the field was, and even felt thrilled to belong to the “male” majority that I had become used to.
My supervisors were men, as were many of the colleagues I was fortunate enough to work with. Working in this environment, I did not feel that gender was a big concern for me.
However, within a year, I started noticing some interesting patterns. Whenever I pitched new ideas to my supervisors, I almost always convinced them, and I always at least felt that had confidence in my ideas.
Interestingly, when I interacted with more junior colleagues, I felt the opposite. Some of them were highly motivated and attentive, but most of them did not pay attention to me and even outright ignored what I said.
As I spent more time with them, they were likely to brush away my ideas, concerns, and advice. I was frustrated and confused. I asked around to find solutions, but instead found that my male colleagues rarely encountered these problems. At that point, I was not entirely sure whether this had something to do with my gender.
My personal experience in male-dominated, stereotypically masculine fields has not just taught me how to interact with people. It also opened my eyes to the trust problem faced by women with relatively high professional status: you may have brilliant ideas, but people still mistrust and doubt you.
In professional settings, trust is crucial. Lack of trust makes it harder to work with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders.
Nevertheless, women are often less trusted by others – especially when they are in higher ranks, or hold high-status roles implying professional competence.
Male patients undervalue advice from senior female doctors. Voters show less trust in high-profile female politicians, despite their long service records.
The common thread between these examples and my own experience is that people have less confidence in women whose professional standing is higher than theirs.
So far, academic and non-academic literature on this trust problem has focused on individual-level factors (e.g., individual gender biases) and therefore proposed individual-oriented solutions.
Many of these solutions focus on how women can behave differently, for example by adopting new leadership styles and developing communication skills – implying that they are the ones who need to change to solve the problem.
Of course, such solutions would probably have some effect. However, they unfortunately neglect “gender-status beliefs”: the widely-held cultural beliefs about a social hierarchy of gender, involving expectations about men’s greater competence and suitability for authority and power.
Such beliefs shape individual biases and influence people’s evaluation of higher-status women. Women of higher professional standing signal their professional competence, which conflicts with cultural beliefs about women’s lack of competence.
This perceived incongruence, or “gender-status mismatch”, leads people to place less trust in what these women say. In other words, the trust problem many women face is in fact a product of these gender-status beliefs. Mistrusting high-status women is a way to counteract the perceived mismatch.
Once you acknowledge how deeply gender-status beliefs are ingrained in society, you may wonder how effective individualistic solutions could be. In my own experience, despite making a series of changes – from my supervision style to the communication platforms I used – I regrettably continued to face the same trust problem. Now I feel that I have some explanations for the mistrust that I have faced for so many years.
Society-wide efforts to weaken gender-status beliefs would be a more effective way to help women gain others’ trust, especially in professional settings.
- Picture at top: Dr Eun Young (EY) Song: Image: Jamie Kidston/ANU).
“EY” Eun Young Song is a lecturer in management at Australian National University. EY focuses on how our conformity to gender and status norms leads to unintended consequences at individual, organizational and social levels.