Stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics of a group of people, which lead to expectations about what individual members of that group will be like and how they will behave. Stereotypes are usually formed on the basis of membership in visible social categories such as race, gender, age, and disability status. Although the content of the stereotypes about groups varies, the process by which stereotyping influences how people are perceived remains the same. Stereotyping is a cognitive process that occurs when individuals are judged and evaluated on the basis of group memberships, rather than information about them as individuals.
People rely on stereotypes for cognitive reasons. Stereotyping simplifies the task of observing and understanding people. When a new person is encountered, it is expected that he or she will have characteristics that are consistent with the stereotype and will behave in a manner consistent with the stereotype. This process usually occurs automatically, outside of conscious awareness. Once activated, stereotypes influence the information about a person that is attended to, how that information is interpreted, and the impression that is formed about that individual. While stereotypes result in more efficient processing of information, they have potentially deleterious costs in terms of fairness and accuracy of judgments. Relying on stereotypes of a group to make judgments about an individual’s behavior results in the perceiver glossing over the individual’s actual characteristics and behavior.
Stereotyping of workers in organizations is a well-researched phenomenon. In the workplace, people are frequently called upon to make judgments and evaluate others for hiring decisions, promotions, job assignments, and salary increases. Research has demonstrated that stereotypes play a role in these decisions and result in biased evaluations of certain groups. The manner by which many of these decisions occur in an organizational setting is through a matching process in which the attributes of an individual worker are compared to the attributes thought to be required for a specific job. When the worker’s perceived attributes match the attributes thought to be required for a job, then that individual is expected to succeed. However, if the worker’s perceived attributes are not seen as matching the attributes thought to be required for a given job, that individual is expected to fail. The perceived attributes of workers have been demonstrated to be heavily based on stereotypes, rather than information about them as individuals. This can then lead to erroneous expectations of success for some groups and failure for others. For example, it has been shown that high-level managerial, executive jobs are thought to require typically male attributes such as achievement orientation and aggressiveness. Thus when women (or the elderly, or African Americans) are evaluated for these types of jobs, they are not seen as a good match because the stereotypes of these groups are not seen as matching the typical male attributes required for the job. This perceived lack of fit between the attributes of the individual and the requirements for the job result in expectations of failure and biased evaluations of performance. When White men are evaluated for these types of jobs, they are seen as matching because of the overlap between the stereotype of males and the attributes required for success in managerial roles. This perceived fit between these attributes of the individual and the requirements for the job result in expectations of success and positively biased evaluations of performance. Thus, stereotypes lead to expectations of failure or success that result in biased evaluations in organizational settings. This has been found to be the case not only for women on male-sex-typed jobs but also for the elderly on young-typed-jobs, for African Americans on White-typed-jobs, and for people with disabilities for jobs thought to be physically demanding.
Stereotypes have also been shown to impact targets of a stereotype, as well as perceivers. Research has demonstrated that individuals who belong to groups to which a negative stereotype applies are likely to worry about confirming that stereotype and thus perform worse on a given task. For example, women were found to negotiate less well than men when the stereotype that women are not effective negotiators was primed; however, there were no differences in negotiation performance when the stereotype was not primed. Thus stereotypes can negatively impact work outcomes for individuals through their effect on biased evaluations of performance by others and through their effect on the actual performance of stereotyped individuals.
There has been a great deal of research examining how to minimize the impact of stereotyping on organizational decision making. People are capable of overriding automatically activated stereotypes and making careful decisions based on individual behavior when given the time, incentive, and information to do so. Research has identified factors that allow for this type of careful decision making. First, organizational decision makers are less likely to rely on stereotypes when they have access to job-relevant information about the individual. Research has demonstrated that people are less likely to rely on stereotypes when there is unambiguous information about how successful or qualified an individual is, when it is clear that it is the individual that is responsible for the success, and when there are no alternative explanations available as to why the individual was successful. Thus one way to minimize the impact of stereotypes is making success and failure information explicit. In addition, it is critical to ensure that decision makers have enough time available to make careful decisions. Research has demonstrated that decision makers are more likely to rely on stereotypes when they are busy and distracted by other work. Finally, another important factor that minimizes the extent to which decision makers will rely on stereotypes in making judgments is whether or not the decision maker is motivated to make an accurate decision. Thus organizations that hold people accountable for accurate decision making, provide sufficient time for decision making, and provide sufficient information to decision makers are less likely to have decision-making processes biased by stereotypes.
Another important factor in minimizing the impact of stereotypes of workers is to change the way that jobs are seen. One of the most important factors in determining who is seen as a good fit for a job is the characteristics of job incumbents. If job incumbents are mostly White and male, then White males will be seen as having matching characteristics for this type of job. If job incumbents vary in terms of social groups, then it is more likely that organizational decision makers will have to examine individual characteristics of workers, rather than rely on stereotypes to determine who is a match for a given job.
The effects of stereotyping workers in organizations are tenacious, because stereotypes come to mind automatically. Stereotypes influence both perceivers and the targets of the stereotype. One of the most important things that an organization can do is to simply acknowledge the effects of stereotypes so that individuals can actively work not to rely on them when making judgments.
- Eagly, A. H. and Karau, S. J. 2002. “Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice toward Female Leaders.” Psychological Review 109:573-598.
- Fiske, S T. 1998. “Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination.” Pp. 357-411 in The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th ed., vol. 2., edited by D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindsay. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Heilman, M. E. 1983. “Sex Bias in Work Settings: The Lack of Fit Model.” Pp. 269-298 in Research in Organizational Behavior, vol. 5, edited by B. Staw and L. Cummings. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
- Perry, E. 1997. “A Cognitive Approach to Understanding Discrimination: A Closer Look at Applicant Gender and Age.” Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management 15:175-240.
- Steele, C. M. 1997. “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance.” American Psychologist 52:613-629.