Woman in Business - Managing Perceptions

Anne and Heather Dranitsaris, PhD and Dranitsaris-Hilliard's picture

Our assumptions and perceptions colour how we view the world and people in it. We project on to others our idea of who they should be and treat them as though that is actually who they are, based on our beliefs and preconceived ideas and what is most familiar to us. This contributes to our cultural stereotypes. When we see a women, we don’t always see who she really is, but project the stereotype for what a woman “should” be like based on our personal bias and conditioning.

When I served on the Executive Committee of the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade in the role of Secretary, I was asked at several events when introduced as the Secretary of the Board, why they had not seen me at the Board office. I had to clarify both the role of Secretary on the Board and the correct the perception that as a women, I would be in an administrative rather than leadership role.

We all have assumptions and preconceived ideas. My experience on the Board of Trade is minor compared to some of the challenges that women face in business every day. Having to deal with these misperceptions and preconceived expectations can be a major hurdle for women as they grow their business or climb the corporate ladder. At times, the emotions involved both at work and on the home front prove more difficult to deal with than doing business itself.

Our assumptions and perceptions colour how we view the world and people in it. We project on to others our idea of who they should be and treat them as though that is actually who they are, based on our beliefs and preconceived ideas and what is most familiar to us. This contributes to our cultural stereotypes. When we see a women, we don’t always see who she really is, but project the stereotype for what a woman “should” be like based on our personal bias and conditioning. Women in business constantly have to deal with the perception that they are soft and quiet, friendly and supportive, negotiators and arbitrators during conflicts, and generally “people people.” This can interfere with women getting the respect and support they require as they work at growing their business or advancing in their career.

Heather, a 32-year-old female business owner had to negotiate a loan to finance the growth of her business. She had already been told that she would have to personally guarantee it and that her husband would need to co-sign. She made the appointment and brought her husband Mike to negotiate a loan and sign the papers. The female loan officer directed the conversation to Mike, asking him questions about the business and its financial history. Although Heather told her that Mike did not have the business information, it was only when Mike told her to direct the questions to Heather that she did. This woman seemed to have difficulty with the reality of Heather, at her age, being in charge of a growing, successful business instead of her husband.

This is a familiar scenario for women. Based on our conditioning, with fathers in the power position in the family, men are automatically put in the power positions and women in support roles. It is difficult to not take this personally and to not respond emotionally hard not to take it personally, especially when the need for financial and other support is great.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot you can do to change major preformed perceptions borne out of hundreds of years of reinforcement. However, it is rarely to one’s advantage to “fight” the perceptions. It is a battle that cannot be won.

What usually works best is to understand who you are and how you work, and then to analyze how you fit or don’t fit with current stereotypes. Figuring out where you are in and out of sync with a stereotype allows you to be more in control of your responses to people’s perceptions. It enables you to set expectations for people in advance, so they don’t have the opportunity to apply an inappropriate stereotype. In short, it allows you to manage the situation.