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Kristin Maschka's picture

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What’s stunning about the reaction to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and the news that new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is pregnant is the size and scope of the reaction itself.

And I can explain that reaction with a screen shot.

Tweets from Marissa Mayer on July 16

Those two tweets.

The first one she sent broadcasts competence “I’m a new CEO tomorrow.” And the second one suggests warmth and caring “I’m going to be a mom.” Right next to each other. Tweeted within 7 hours of each other.

A woman who embodies competence AND warmth and caring. In our collective cultural subconscious that does not compute. And that combination has people’s heads spinning and their tongues wagging.

Marissa Mayer and Anne-Marie Slaughter have provided two amazing high-profile examples of one strategy for breaking through subconscious stereotypes – exposing people to examples that don’t fit the stereotype. You can do that too.

Warmth and competence are the two critical factors in how we subconsciously form our perceptions of others and it’s really hard to get people to perceive you as both warm AND competent. “People tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” (Amy Cuddy quoted in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb.")

By nature of the cultural stereotypes and expectations of mothers as caring and nurturing and responsible for family, mothers are more likely to be perceived as warm and then people perceive them to be LESS competent.

If on the other hand a mother demonstrates her competence in her job, by default people ratchet down their perception of her warmth which reflects poorly on her as a mother who is supposed to be warm.

Be warm and caring OR be competent – but especially for mothers you can’t be perceived as both.

Or can you?

Tackling unconscious stereotypes is a whole different ballgame than tackling conscious ones. Two very different brain processes are at work. While you can tackle conscious stereotypes with reason, persuasive argument, and even confrontation and shame, those don’t work with subconscious (or automatic) stereotypes because people aren’t even aware of they have them. So if you confront your boss about bias against mothers, he or she will get defensive because in his or her conscious mind there is no bias. These subconscious stereotypes are best reshaped with subtler strategies - like exposing people to counter examples.

Even simply imagining in some detail a mother who is both employed and a caring parent or a mother who is not employed and very accomplished helps counteract our automatic stereotypes. So imagine what happens when people actually see Marissa Mayer, pregnant and running a Fortune 500 company?

It blows their minds and shifts the subconscious stereotypes.

Imagine what happens when Slaughter introduces herself as she describes in her article,

“whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons. It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time. …But I notice that my male introducers are typically uncomfortable when I make the request. They frequently say things like “And she particularly wanted me to mention that she has two sons”—thereby drawing attention to the unusual nature of my request, when my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.”

Mayer and Slaughter’s competence is so well established that if they simply talk about being mothers they become major Mother MythBusters.

As I described in my book, Remodeling Motherhood, I’ve also made it my mission to remodel the way people think about mothers and fathers and you can too. When our daughter was one, she came along with me to visit offices where I was doing volunteer work. When she was four, I often mentioned her when I facilitated executive-level meetings. When I introduce myself today, I say I am an author, I own my own business, and my husband and I have a tween daughter. We can all help shift these subconscious stereotypes and this is a critical piece of the work of remodeling motherhood, fatherhood, our workplaces and our public policies.

So frankly, it doesn’t matter what else Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer do. They’ve already done us a huge service by being the biggest Mother MythBusters of all.

~ Kristin

Catalyze!


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