Jenny Veldman (KU Leuven) about her research on women's underrepresentation in certain fields of work and in leadership positions

My field of research often elicits discussions with family and friends about the underrepresentation of women in certain fields of education or work. For instance, we discuss why women are underrepresented in fields such as the police force, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM-fields); and why women are underrepresented in leadership positions across work fields. Two things always come up in these discussions: (1) “But the time that women are prevented to go into these fields and positions is behind us.” and (2) “But maybe women don’t want to be in those fields, why should we force them?”.  


Such conversations often center around whether or not discrimination against women exists and whether or not women really want to be in those fields and positions (oftentimes discussed in that order). In my view, it is too easy to simply dismiss these comments as those of people who don’t know the facts due to a lack of education on the topic. However, the topic is a very complex one, and is not about either discrimination or personal choice. In order to truly understand what influences girls’ and women’s decisions regarding their education and work (and hence understand their underrepresentation) these seemingly opposing sides need to be combined.


Traditionally, explanations for the female underrepresentation have concentrated on discriminatory practices within education and organizations that prevent women from entering certain fields and positions. For example, in the Netherlands (where I come from) women were fired from their job as soon as they got married until the 1950s. Additionally, in Belgium women were not allowed to apply for a job in the military until the 1970s. It is undeniable that the position of girls and women in education and work has improved tremendously across history. Being fired when you get married is (fortunately) unimaginable in current times. Despite these enormous changes, however, girls and women are still underrepresented in different education and work fields. For example, although in Belgium women have been allowed to apply for the military since 1975, their representation has increased only slowly and has stagnated around 7 to 8% 15 years ago.


More recently, the conviction that everyone has equal opportunities and is free to make the choices they wish in work and education has become more dominant. Hence, remaining differences in representation between men and women in education and work are now ascribed to individual differences in men’s and women’s abilities, ambitions, or priorities. For example, some might argue that girls are underrepresented in advanced science and mathematics courses because they are inherently less interested in these fields, and that women are underrepresented in senior management positions because they prioritize their families.


However, these traditional and more modern explanations for girls’ and women’s underrepresentation do not provide a complete picture. Although they seem opposing, both discrimination and women’s choices need to be combined to understand girls’ and women’s underrepresentation. Despite legal provisions officially prohibiting discrimination, girls and women in underrepresented fields still experience negative stereotypes, lower expectations, and lower status. For example, young girls face stereotypes that technology is not really for girls or that boys are inherently better in mathematics. And women showing leadership behavior often experience backlash for being ‘too bossy’ (while the same behavior from male colleagues is accepted; see Antonia’s article on this here). However, although such stereotypes and barriers can stop girls from entering such fields and can lead women to leave their position, this does not have to be the case. Women are not passive victims affected by stereotypes and other external processes. Research shows that women actively cope with negative stereotypes and lower expectations when they experience this to try and achieve their goals (for example achievement goals). Therefore, a girl not choosing an advanced mathematics course cannot only be explained by either gender discrimination or girls being less interested in mathematics. In contrast, it is an interaction between the environment, communicating negative stereotypes about girls and mathematics, and the individual, actively coping with these stereotypes to try to achieve her goals. This can lead to not choosing the advanced mathematics course, but this does not need to be the case.


There are also other coping mechanisms that girls and women can use to cope with negative stereotypes For example, women in higher management positions sometimes distance themselves from other women. They do this by emphasizing their “masculine” characteristics and by emphasizing that they are different from other women. These women are often called ‘Queen Bees’ or ‘Iron Ladies’. Importantly, however, this research also shows that these women do this particularly when they have experienced barriers and gender bias in their career. So, distancing the self from other women seems to be a way for these women to try to counter the negative stereotypes and low expectations they face when moving up the organization ladder. This shows that women are not passive victims of negative stereotypes, but that they actively cope with this to try and achieve their goals.


Although this coping mechanism can help some women to cope with gender bias and get into leadership positions, the downside of emphasizing that you are not like other women and are a good leader is that it perpetuates stereotypes about women. Consequently, it does not lead to structural change in the position of women  in general. In my own research I investigate distancing as a coping mechanism that young women use in education and work fields in which they are a minority and negatively stereotyped. Importantly, I am also interested in how the context (for example by communicating a positive gender diversity climate) can reduce the necessity for women to emphasize that they are different from other women to remain in the field. If this indeed proves to be the case, then this could provide opportunities for change for all women, and not just a few women who are willing to constantly battle the negative stereotypes and bias they face.


Thus, in my own research I focus on precisely these and other strategies that girls and women (and other underrepresented groups) use to cope with the explicit and hidden barriers they face in education and work. Via my research, I try to increase our understanding of how girls and women make education- and work-related choices, and show that girls’ and women’s underrepresentation in education and work fields is not a simple discrimination vs. personal choice dichotomy. Yes, the time in which women are legally prevented from entering certain fields and positions is behind us, but this does not mean that women do not face negative stereotypes and barriers that are just as difficult to cope with.


~Please reference: Veldman, J. (2016, December 12) Discrimination or choice? Or both? Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com



 Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1045-1060.

Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & De Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen-bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22, 1243-1249.

 Ellemers, N., & Barreto, M. (2015). Modern discrimination: How perpetrators and targets interactively perpetuate social disadvantage. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 142-146. 

Miller, C. (2006). Social psychological perspectives on coping with stressors related to stigma. In S. Levin, & C. Van Laar (Eds.),Stigma and group inequality: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 21-44). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

 Stephens, N. M., & Levine, C. S. (2011). Opting out or denying discrimination? How the framework of free choice in American society influences perceptions of gender inequality. Psychological Science, 22, 1231–1236. 



Jenny Veldman