What It Will Really Take for Women to Advance

Change must start at the bottom — with day-to-day expectations
Women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who moved into the corner office even as she expects her first child, have been making big headlines lately.

And at the same time, articles calling for more women in such top positions — a shift of our minority status on Wall Street and in big business — have been more viral than cute cat videos.

The approach most articles take, though, I find somewhat baffling.

“More women on Wall Street isn’t just better for women,” they exclaim, “It’s better for Wall Street! And more women on the board isn’t just about equality — it improves the bottom line!”

Then, the icing on the cake — studies are tossed out to prove it.

Yet all these headlines and studies still fall flat because of one simple notion: The expectation that there is any universal type of woman to begin with. Whether our old gender role of happy homemaker or a new gender role of “equal to men” or “better for business” is applied, the bottom line is that it is role-playing all the same.

Such expectations start as early as preschool and in things as seemingly benign as the choice of a Happy Meal toy at McDonald’s. The boy Transformers toy or the girl Barbie toy? You can only be one or the other.

Then we throw our hands in the air and wonder why on earth those little Barbie-loving girls don’t grow up to work on Wall Street or become higher-ups of big-name businesses. But the same kinds of expectations play a large role.

See, the thing with McDonald’s is that it’s not like there are no girl toys offered at all — if that were the case, God knows the Golden Arches would see a firestorm worse than the one caused when Facebook indeed had a female-free board of directors.

But, instead, the choice is there, and with it an abstract notion of equality that hazes over the implied idea: the idea of a “real” or “right” female (one that plays with dolls, in this case).

The same is true for women in the work force. A similar illusion of equal opportunity is padded by the many studies women can throw around to make ourselves feel good about our progress: We constitute nearly 60% of college grads, the pay gap has narrowed, and we make lots of buying decisions! Hooray!

But then our bubble is burst by the fact women still only held 16% of board seats on Fortune 500 companies in 2011 and that the already-low number of females on Wall Street dwindled even further in the wake of the financial crisis. So, we yank our expectations of women away from the dolls and more toward the Transformers in an attempt to correct these discrepancies.

The Boys Will Be Boys study is an especially popular pathway to doing this, as it shows women are more conservative and successful investors thanks to the macho-man problem of overconfidence.

Or sometimes, a popular line of thinking is that women have more leadership qualities that are associated with success — such as being both more nurturing and ethical.

Plus there’s data showing that organizations with three or more women as members of the board of directors donated an average of 28 times more than those without such diversity.

I think it’s all a load of bull.

To start, studies like these have helped create the very problem they are being used to remedy. Case in point: This so-called proof that women are superior investors. One investigation similar to the Boys Will Be Boys study agreed that women take fewer risks — but found it was the case only when they were in an all-female setting. Once they were mixed with the boys, they became just as risky.

The point is this: These studies (and the conceptions that come with them) aren’t as cut-and-dry as they seem. And a quip along the lines of “women are better investors” is, first of all, oversimplified, and on top of that, not a far cry from ones like “boys are better at math” — a myth that permeates society and expectations from the classroom on, and one that definitely doesn’t help females move up in the business and finance world.

The bottom line is that these studies still create expectations, just with a remixed definition of what is “normal.” And trying to put the entirety of the female gender in a box — any box — is naturally limiting.

On top of that, oftentimes the existence of such limiting expectations isn’t even noticed. Many teachers don’t realize, for example, their biased perceptions of math skills. Instead, it’s subtle, subconscious decisions, as habitual as ordering a girl toy for your girl, that are to blame.

Even Sallie Krawcheck, former president of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), agreed when commenting on the scarcity of women in high-ranking financial positions.

“Never once did I see someone turned down for a job because of race or gender,” she says explicitly.

She continues, though, to explain what she did see:

“The promotions of people who looked and talked and acted a lot like the person promoting them.” Women, as she goes on to say, were considered “luxury stretch assignments” — the outliers and oddballs.

As Alice Eagly and Steven Karau argue and the Psy-Fi blog summarizes, “Society’s stereotyping of gender roles means that some jobs are incongruent with social expectations. Women aren’t expected to be business leaders” — just as girls aren’t (or weren’t) expected to play with racecars.

And soon, such expectations and role-playing become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This makes sense if you consider what jobs women flock to the most: retail, communications, education … jobs in line with typical expectations for females. Little girls that play teacher as a kid — with princesses and Barbies as students, of course — or that love shopping and dress-up are fulfilling unspoken gender norms.

But if boys do those same things? It’s quickly reversed, and they are the oddballs.

Unless we stop inadvertently letting societal expectations dictate our worlds, women are going to continue to be outliers that occasionally slip up through the cracks of a still-intact glass ceiling. And using a few sporadic statistics here and there in attempt to change where women belong is nothing but backward thinking.

Alyssa Oursler is an assistant editor at InvestorPlace.com — a leading financial news website — and a Gettysburg College graduate. She writes on a variety of topics, including finance, gender, media, culture, higher ed and more.