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Fueling the fire: Stereotype threat motivates support for change

Mar 12, 2024

In celebration of International Women's Day and its theme, "Inspire Inclusion," Ivey spotlights five exceptional faculty members whose research and teaching are shaping a better, more inclusive future for women. Read on to learn insights from Zoe Kinias on how systemic stereotype threat is cultivating support for change and solidarity amongst women and watch the video above.  

We all know them. Remarkable, accomplished women, who defy expectations, break barriers, and effectively navigate the leadership labyrinth. Women who, as they rise to the zenith of their fields, also challenge the status quo and empower other women to rise, succeed, and thrive alongside.

But what drives certain women to champion and uplift others? And what has shaped these women into the influential advocates they've become?

These are the questions that Ivey Associate Professor, Organizational Behaviour, Zoe Kinias and Clarissa I. Cortland, Assistant Professor at the UCL School of Management, UK explored in their recent research, “Adding Fuel to the Collective Fire: Stereotype Threat, Solidarity, and Support for Change.”

“Inspiration is ultimately what prompted this research,” said Kinias, a notable EDI researcher and professor. She and Cortland discovered themselves inspired and intrigued by the exceptional women within their professional and personal spheres, who exhibited a strong aptitude for supporting and advocating for fellow women. “We want to celebrate these women, but we also want to understand what stirs their action, and how more women can support each other,” said Kinias.

Across six studies, including surveys of over 1,700 business school alumnae and students, and experiments with over 1,800 working women, Kinias and Cortland examined the influence of systemic stereotype threat – a pervasive and persistent form of concern about confirming stereotypes about marginalized groups. Their research delves into how stereotype threat shapes women's collective action, particularly in terms of supporting other women and being motivated to enhance organizational gender balance at leadership levels. The groundbreaking study uncovers a contemporary paradox, born from too-common experiences where women are underrepresented in powerful positions. And the implicit understanding of that underrepresentation is women’s incompetence.

Fueling the fire

In the business world and across diverse industries, women regularly encounter an array of negative stereotypes. These include notions that they are less competent or proficient in core business, business leadership, and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields relative to men. These beliefs form an implicit – unexamined – explanation for women’s underrepresentation. But what impact does encountering these negative assumptions truly have on women themselves?

In their study, Kinias noted two significant findings. The first is that when women experience stereotype threat in their work roles, specifically where women are underrepresented, they are more likely to disengage from their work or potentially exit their positions.

Nevertheless, the adverse impact of stereotype threat sparked a motivation. Experiencing stereotyping also ignited women’s greater feelings of ingroup solidarity, leading them to actively support and empower other women. Essentially, the threat fuels a fire, inspiring them to mentor others, advocate on their behalf, amplify their voices, and serve as role models.

This significant research marks the first empirical link between stereotype threat and support for social change in addressing gender imbalance. Additionally, it sheds new light on the journey of women evolving into impactful allies. Kinias expands on this, noting, “Systemic stereotype threat is – by its nature – a uniting experience, bringing women together because of that shared threat. Because of this, women can emerge with a greater sense of solidarity – igniting a fire within them to become champions for other women.”

It's a shared responsibility

With inclusion and maximizing the potential of individuals at the forefront of all her research, Kinias is motivated to unearth these new gender insights. Recognizing that there's more to uncover, she encourages delving deeper into this area, more systematically exploring intersections of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and economic factors.

In addition, Kinias and Cortland are also working with organizational leaders to identify interventions to reduce systemic bias in the workplace. Importantly, Kinias emphasizes that, although women's efforts in fostering gender balance should be celebrated, solving this issue is not solely their responsibility.

“I want to be clear,” she said. “No one should think that the onus is on women solely to support each other and to ultimately change systemic bias. An inclusive future relies on everyone to respect one another, to speak up against inequity, and to create a culture where everyone feels valued.”