REDUCING SEX DISCRIMINATION: ALTERING CONTEXT

Although orientations toward women have roots in socialization processes, and sex stereotypes are often firmly decided at a very early age, some of the unjust consequences of these stereotypes can be limited without actually changing them. Here the issue is not the elimination of the stereotypic belief system but the control of its consequences. Such control requires an understanding of environmental factors facilitating or hindering the pertinence of sex stereotypes and thus the degree to which they are used. Two such factors will be considered here. Both can regulate the extent to which stereotypic attributes are assumed to characterize one specific woman.

Information. It already has been mentioned that stereotypes about women in general are most likely to be employed when ambiguity exists. Specific information about the woman in question often is more compelling than beliefs about sex-stereotypic attributes. This suggests that consideration be given to revising current personnel decision-making procedures. If resumes could be supplemented by extensive background information, if performance appraisals were to specify the reasons behind performance, and if concrete evidence of success could be supplied whenever possible, stereotypical assumptions could be prevented from dominating decision processes. Drawing from Kelley, it would seem that information about consistency of successful performance and degree of consensus among evaluators would be particularly important. If, for example, it is known that Ms. X has repeatedly succeeded in the past, has succeeded admirably in various tasks, or has been judged to be greatly talented by many evaluators using many measures, her potential and ability would be very difficult to discount. Structuring both the richness and the specificity of the information given to decision makers conceivably could preclude the ill effects of sex stereotypes without actually altering stereotypical beliefs.

In her recent book, Men and Women of the Corporation, Kanter claims that the proportional representation of women in work settings not only influences their feelings and attitudes but also influences the way in which they are treated by others, When there is a great disproportion in the size of the minority and majority groups, she believes there is cause for concern. When tokens (the members of that piddling minority) are isolated from informal social networks, they are viewed as alien and different, and their characteristics are distorted to fit stereotyped conceptions. According to Kanter, tokenism is deadly, fostering reliance on stereotypes no matter what the personal characteristics of the individuals are.

The implications of this point of view are simple. Whenever possible, group-hiring and not individual hiring of women for male-dominated positions should be the rule. When a number of women are to be brought into positions held by few other women, clustering, not dispersing is suggested. Women should be bunched in numbers large enough so that they are not tokens even if it means that some units have no women at all. Simply by avoiding numerical scarcity, and providing evidence of the variety and differences among women, reacting to them all as if they were the same becomes unjustifiable.

These are only two examples of contextual factors which can regulate the degree to which sex-stereotypic attitudes affect decisions made about any one woman. Discovering others is of paramount importance. The capacity to control discriminatory behavior may be, at the moment, the only option we have.

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