Overcoming occupational stereotypes and segregation


The preconceptions we have about certain jobs and gender and race combine to shut people out of occupations or promotions

Occupational segregation is one of the key drivers of the persistent gender and racial pay gaps both in the UK and US, and the reason that fewer women and ethnic minorities rise to managerial positions.

To better understand these issues I and my colleagues from the University of Toronto conducted a study into the subject, which showed that seemingly innocuous stereotypes people have about occupations, known as 'occupational stereotypes,' contribute to the segregation of disadvantaged groups into certain types of occupations. When asked to think of a scientist, teacher or lawyer, stereotypical images of these occupations come to people’s minds. Scientists, for example, are more likely to be thought of as intelligent and somewhat unsociable.

We developed a comprehensive classification of occupational stereotypes by applying a framework, used in the past to measure stereotypes of social groups, onto the perception of occupations. We found that people stereotype occupations along two dimensions: warmth and competence. For example, the commonly-held image of scientists as smart but socially awkward correspond to perceptions of high competence and low warmth. Similarly the image of childcare workers as caring but lacking assertiveness could be represented in the classification by perceptions of high warmth and low competence.

Furthermore, we discovered an important pattern: demographic groups whose stereotypes matched the stereotypes of certain occupations were more likely to be highly represented in those occupations. Conversely, when the stereotypes of demographic groups did not match a given occupational stereotype those demographic groups segregated away from the occupation.

Using data from the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics we found that women (commonly stereotyped as high on warmth and lower on competence) were more represented in occupations also stereotyped as higher in warmth and lower in competence. Asian people, commonly stereotyped as higher on competence, were segregated into occupations that were similarly seen as having high competence. Finally occupations seen as low in competence had higher representation of black and Hispanic workers, who are also stereotyped to be lower in competence.

What these points suggest is that occupational segregation could be attributed to people selecting and self-selecting based on persistent occupational stereotypes. Our study also proposes a possible remedy: change and broaden occupational stereotypes to reduce their rigidity and the hold they have on people. To achieve this companies need to first identify aspects of the stereotypes of a given occupation or job that might be incongruent with certain demographic groups.

This basic prescription may be applied in many ways by HR professionals. Careful examination of recruitment, selection and performance management criteria, material and processes may reveal practices that perpetuate those stereotypes. Once the stereotype incongruence is identified, one can highlight different aspects (warmth or competence) of the profession to appeal to more diverse demographic groups.

Companies can make use of this strategy at all stages of recruitment, selection and performance management. For instance, engineering firms aiming to recruit more women can emphasise the warmth-related aspects of engineering – highlighting that engineers make important contributions to society and regularly work closely in teams. Broadening or removing terms and images that conjure up stereotypical views of occupations can help more diverse groups to see themselves holding those occupations, and encourage them to apply for those jobs.

Another possible strategy is to broaden selection criteria that are stereotype incongruent. For instance, to increase representation of male and Asian workers for occupations in childcare, HR professionals can provide selection criteria that emphasise requirements related to competence in addition to warmth.

Finally, at the promotion and performance appraisal stages, highlighting warmth stereotypes (i.e. collaboration and supportiveness) while downplaying the dominance of competence stereotypes in appraisals, can be one way to increase the promotion and retention of women. Even small changes to how occupations are portrayed in the media, in recruitment materials and in selection criteria, can have lasting influence on the demographic representation in a given occupation.

The good news is that whether occupational stereotypes are perpetuated by our environment, by culture and society, or by personal biases, companies can play an active role in changing inaccurate stereotypes to gain access to a more diverse applicant pool and solve these pressing social issues.

Soo Min Toh is professorial fellow at the University of Edinburgh Business School and associate professor of organisational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto