Commentary: Gender expectations need conscious effort to be changed

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Editor’s note: It’s Women’s History Month, and to mark International Women’s Day, Peter Bothum asked University of Delaware professors “for their thoughts on the hurdles women faced during the pandemic and what can be done now that we seem to be moving on to live in the ‘new normal.’” This series was first published by UDaily.

Although the pandemic hit everyone hard, it did have its silver linings. For example, parents got to add another two lines to their resumes: schoolteacher and IT technician.

Unfortunately, nothing is free, as this inclusion came at the cost of time, healthy cortisol levels and sanity. In heteronormative, dual-income households, this expense was particularly substantial for women. This is because, when push comes to shove, we expect women to take care of children, while we expect men to provide for their families — in this case, by earning money through labor.

But why are working women expected to shoulder this double burden? As my colleagues and I show in a 2018 article published in the Academy of Management Journal, the answer likely comes down to implicit expectations based on gender roles. Particularly, people ascribe social status to others based on their behavior. However, not everyone earns status in the same way. Whether or not you receive status for a particular behavior depends on what socially significant characteristics you possess, and gender is one of the most socially significant characteristics of all, across time and across cultures.

While men are expected to be assertive and action-oriented, women are expected to be reactive and communal. Women are expected to take care of people. And if nothing is said, they will because these expectations tend to guide people’s beliefs. In a household with a man and a woman and kids, the woman is often expected to take care of the kids, and her husband and other women will respect her for doing so.

However, this can cause problems. In our study, we found that women are less likely to be nominated for leadership positions because leaders are expected to be assertive, and therefore, men tend to be associated with leadership. This bias also results in the time, physical health and mental health costs mentioned above. However, we continue to abide by it because it is unconscious. We do not notice it, so it is hard to stop. It will not be stopped without conscious effort.

Kyle Emich is an associate professor of management at the University of Delaware.