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Faculty Perspective

The Solidarity Strategy

headshot of Kellie McElhaney

Media on “amplification” and “stereotype threat” has become part of the national conversation about gender bias and roadblocks for women leaders. Berkeley-Haas professors Laura Kray and Kellie McElhaney share their research and different perspectives on how male and female leaders should think comprehensively about strategies for gender equity.

Mansplaining. Manterrupting. Bropropriation. These words have now become mainstream idioms to describe the gender bias and dynamics women across the U.S. report as commonplace in their jobs: that is, if they actually achieve the coveted seat at the leadership table, oftentimes their ideas are interrupted or co-opted by male colleagues. The data are clear—volumes of research since the 1970s support the claim that men interrupt women more in meetings. It’s become a major discourse about the social barriers women still face to making their voices heard and reaching the highest levels of power.

That’s why last year’s Washington Post story on “amplification” struck a chord with so many, going viral in a matter of days. The story describes a strategy used by female staffers during the early days of the Obama administration, who, after observing that they were being passed over and interrupted during meetings, began repeating each other’s ideas and crediting the originator by name. This made it more difficult for male colleagues to ignore or “steal” the idea. Over time, the strategy worked: the women were called on and sought for their opinions much more frequently by male colleagues, and, by President Obama himself.

As this story circulated through social media, prominent female business leaders nodded their heads: when asked whether amplification posed a potential strategy for women in a corporate setting, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg agreed—“It’s huge.” But in the business world, gender parity often falls way behind the political arena. For instance, the number of female senators is 20 percent, while only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs, and a staggering 96 percent of venture capitalists are men. The question is, with so few women in leadership roles, will an amplification strategy work on corporate teams and in board rooms?

“The answer is, yes; but with a few caveats,” says Kellie McElhaney. An associate professor for business and social impact at Berkeley-Haas School of Business. She says that compared to the political space where job roles can begin and end during rapid 2 to 4-year cycles, businesses have the advantage of more long-term development of their people. Furthermore, many businesses are very aware of the common biases that prevent women from reaching the top and have installed gender and diversity equity programs to improve this. “Amplification and positive alliances between female colleagues can be hugely beneficial for development and retention,” McElhaney explains.

The caveat? “With most cultural and structural change, it absolutely must be on the leader’s agenda. It’s nice if this happens organically. But change in a business culture is more likely to trickle down than trickle up,” she adds.

That means, as McElhaney and many others reinforce, male leaders need to play a major role in overcoming subtle and non-subtle biases, employing tactics like amplification to support their female peers. However, this tactic alone will not change things overnight.

“Implicit biases are so deeply wired into us, a tactic like this must be part of a comprehensive strategy,” says McElhaney.

Laura Kray, professor of leadership at Haas, says that part of a comprehensive gender equity strategy requires that leaders face implicit biases and gender stereotypes head on, in the effort to challenge and reframe stigmatization. “Research shows that women can overcome negative stereotypes about their negotiating ability and actually outperform men when they are reminded of gender differences in negotiating approaches before negotiating face-to-face with a male counterpart,” says Kray. “Doing so psychologically increases their determination to prove the stereotype wrong.”

We’re all aware of the stereotype threat, that the awareness of socially devalued traits and or stereotypes can cause wide variation in behavior, performance issues, and in some cases, cause temporary lowering of IQs in women and minorities. Research suggests that when negative stereotypes are activated implicitly, men will outperform women—for instance, say a group of men and women watch a topical comedy routine, which happens to contain an off-hand reference to women and mathematics. When the participants are later asked to take a math exam, women have been primed to be aware of their perceived weakness at the task at hand, and actually perform more poorly than when that stereotype has not been primed. 

But Kray’s groundbreaking research demonstrates that there are ways to turn this negative self-fulfilling paradox on its head if the implicit bias or stereotype is made explicit. Her research shows that when these biases are “activated” in a social setting, meaning they are called out and referenced, it creates a motivational response in which the stereotype recipient can rebel or reject the stigmatization labelling, allowing them to outperform their counterparts. 

“Two decades of social psychological research makes clear that being burdened by negative stereotypes can impair performance when the pressure is on,” says Kray. “This threat may be more pronounced when the stereotype exists below the level of conscious awareness—when a discussion of differences is muted. By contrast, when differences are acknowledged and amplified, it gives the underdog a fighting chance to reframe the challenge and prove them wrong.”

This has huge implications for both male and female leaders, coaches and mentors in the area of promotions and salary negotiations, which remains a stumbling block on the gender equity strategic agenda. If the stereotype of poor negotiation skills, typically associated with women, is explicitly called out and activated, it holds potential for unlocking an instinct to disprove it, thereby switching the self-fulfilling prophecy to a positive one. 

“Gender stereotypes, while serious hurdles, are less so when we stare them in the face and decide to act differently,” says Kray. 

Learn more from Kellie McElhaney and Laura Kray, both breaking new paths in gender and leadership studies. They each joined Executive Education InFocus recently to share more about their work. Hear Laura’s podcast here, Kellie’s here, and learn from them directly in the Women’s Executive Leadership Program at Berkeley Executive Education.