Friday, March 29, 2013

Stereotype Vulnerability: Isms and Diversity in the Workplace

A woman falls to the floor after trying to hang a painting by herself.
Don't let your success be blocked by diversity barriers!
There are a variety of conditions, both personal and societal, that can prevent us from achieving success.

Specifically, success in the workplace can be halted by prejudices, biases, discrimination, and powerful "isms," like linguicism, ageism, and sexism.

One way for employees, both managers and subordinates alike, can help stop the perpetuation of barriers to success, is for everyone to be on the lookout for stereotype vulnerability.

What is Stereotype Vulnerability?

"Stereotype vulnerability" is a phrase that was coined by Dr. Claude Steele of Stanford University in 1995. It's defined in Richard Bucher's text, Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities as "The danger of not performing up to our ability because of our anxieties and fears about perpetuating a stereotype" (2010, pg. 89).

Linguicism and Stereotype Vulnerability

Say for moment that a hypothetical employee named Fred speaks English as a second language. If Fred were to receive instructions for a project from a manger, either spoken or written, and Fred did not completely and clearly understand the directions, Fred might be afraid to perpetuate the stereotype that those employees who are not native English speakers are less valuable employees because of poor communication skills. His fear of perpetuating the stereotype might prevent him from asking for clarity, or from asking for clarity from the proper person, and he might complete the project incorrectly. If questioned or reprimanded by a manager, he might even be too afraid at that point to admit his lack of understanding, thus setting himself up, perhaps, for further failure while at the same time not learning from his mistake and inadvertently perpetuating the stereotype he meant to avoid in the first place.

A manager, instead of waiting for employees to ask questions about the clarity of project instructions, might instead use active listening skills and request that employees, native and non-native speakers alike, repeat instructions back to the manager so he or she can ascertain whether or not the directions are clear. This paraphrasing technique should take place in a one-on-one setting so as not to embarrass any employee. In this way the manager is helping the employees, and the project, achieve a successful outcome.

Ageism and Stereotype Vulnerability

Employees who are either older or younger than the average employee in a company might also be affected by stereotype vulnerability. For example, older employees might refuse to ask for help using newer computer programs they were not taught in training programs when they were in school, and therefore they might take longer to complete projects. A manager might mistakenly feel these employees are "being too stubborn to ask" when really the employees are trying to prove they can learn independently. Furthermore, they may not be willing to perpetuate the stereotype that older employees lack essential computer skills. Likewise, younger employees might set themselves up for failure by taking on too many projects while trying to prove they have "enough experience to handle it" and are valuable assets to a company.

In these situations, a manager can help employees by offering all employees opportunities to learn new skills through professional development and occasionally check in with all employees to rebalance workloads and reassure employees that they are valued and respected members of their teams or departments.

Sexism and Stereotype Vulnerability

Some women may also feel a type of stereotype vulnerability in the workplace. There are times when male coworkers, although not intending to offend female counterparts, may offer to lift, carry, open, or move something they see a coworker attempting to lift, carry, open, or move herself. Depending on the situation, the woman may find the offer to help somewhat demeaning. If, for example, a woman is clearly struggling while trying to move a desk, any help would probably be extremely appreciated. If, on the other hand, a male coworker assumes a female coworker needs help hanging a frame in an office space when he sees her standing on a chair with a hammer, she may feel he is implying she is incapable of the task. After experiencing such assumptions on multiple occasions, in an effort to counteract such implications, that woman might try to prevent the perpetuation of the stereotype that women are the weaker sex by never asking for help to the extent that she may even risk injury instead of asking for or accepting assistance.

With policies in place regarding facilities and manual labor in the office, no matter the size of the office, many of these types of problems can be prevented. However, if a manager notices these types of dangerous situations becoming prevalent, it may be time to enact such policies or to find the root of the female employee’s persistence to never ask for assistance. Again, instead of labeling the employee “stubborn” or “antisocial,” the manager should attempt to assess whether or not stereotype vulnerability may be the root cause of the behavior.

Stereotype vulnerability can affect employees in ways neither managers nor the employees can ever truly predict. However, by having an understanding of the diverse psychological processes at work in a diverse workplace, all can be more prepared to handle such cases appropriately and productively.


Bucher, R. (2010). Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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