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Research: Women who downplay gender get ahead at work

What does it mean to lead authentically when you are a woman in power? Do you play up the fact that you are a woman or do you hide it? New research advises women to leave gender out of it, finding it to be a limiting construct.

When researchers Ashley Martin and Katherine Phillips asked women questions about gender differences, they ultimately found that women who believed in focusing women’s unique attributes, or those who believed in “gender awareness,” felt less confident and powerful than women who focused on men’s and women’s similarities, or those who believed in “gender blindness.”

That shift in attitude made a long-term difference in women’s belief in themselves. “Downplaying differences made women more confident,” Martin told Harvard Business Review about her research. “They thought they could overcome challenges at work. They felt comfortable disagreeing with others. They said they would take more risks, take initiative, negotiate. These effects were strongest in male-dominated environments.”

It’s about eliminating the idea that women have different skills and abilities”

At first glance, the conclusion of a gender-blind mindset can make it seem as if the researchers are advocating against diversity initiatives. Do they want women to not be women at work? But the researchers do not want you disregard factors like sexism and underrepresentation that make being a woman at work different than being a man in the same position. “Gender blindness is counterintuitive, because we’re often told to celebrate diversity. But embracing diversity is not at all the problem,” Martin said. “The problem is really the types of differences we emphasize.”

The researchers found that women who focused less on gendered abilities had better work outcomes. Women who believe in gender awareness think that there are some things that women are inherently better or worse than men at doing, while gender-blind women downplayed perceived differences in abilities. Gender-aware employees, for example, may believe that female employees are inherently better at doing office housework or planning a happy hour, because those are caregiving skills that society stereotypes as a feminine trait.

With a gender-blind approach, you learn to look beyond someone’s gender identity when thinking about who gets to be a leader and who does not.

“It’s about eliminating the idea that women have different skills and abilities, because they don’t,” Martin said. “Highlighting gender differences and then telling women—and men—to bring their authentic selves to work assumes that their authentic selves revolve around their gender. Gender blindness allows people to be truly authentic.”

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