Role incredulity is a form of gender bias where women are mistakenly assumed to be in a support or stereotypically female role — an administrative assistant, nurse, wife, or girlfriend, for instance — rather than a leadership or stereotypically male role, such as CEO, professor, lawyer, doctor, or engineer. While this slight or mistake might seem innocuous, it can have real ramifications for women. Women must expend extra energy and time to assert and prove their role. Their words may lack the credibility and authority inherent in their position. And when women are not seen as a leader, they may be less likely to be hired into male-dominated roles or to be considered for promotions.
While the real issue of role incredulity is systemic, there are steps organizational leaders, workplace allies, and women themselves can take to prevent and correct it., including setting organizational norms, being an ally, owning your mistakes, and, if you’re a woman, proactively identifying your role.
When a digital marketer we’ll call Alexandra attended meetings alone, clients often asked, “Are we waiting for him to arrive?” “Him” was an imaginary person, Alexandra’s supposed male boss. The clients assumed that Alexandra was in a support role instead of the key decision maker.
For a while Alexandra downplayed the mistake for fear of offending the clients, but soon realized that their condescending view limited discussions. As she explained, “Walking into a negotiation where the other person is basically telling you up-front they deem you less than, even before you open your mouth, was and is demoralizing.”
Alexandra’s experience isn’t unique. Many women have faced similar assumptions about their positions in their organization. We propose a new term for this behavior: role incredulity.
Role incredulity is a form of gender bias where women are mistakenly assumed to be in a support or stereotypically female role — secretary, administrative assistant, court reporter, nurse, wife, girlfriend — rather than a leadership or stereotypically male role, such as CEO, professor, lawyer, doctor, or engineer. In these instances, women must expend extra energy and time to assert and sometimes prove their role. Their words may lack the credibility and authority inherent in their position. Role incredulity surfaced as a common theme in our research dataset of women’s stories from interviews, open-ended survey responses, social media posts, and public articles.
Many women on Twitter have expressed frustration with role incredulity. Some women were flat out told they don’t look like someone in a male-dominated role (“you don’t look like an engineer”) or were received incredulously. For instance, one woman was introduced to a colleague’s male friend, and the friend expressed surprise that she was a reporter, explaining that he assumed the women were in the newsroom “to type up the stories for the men.” Role incredulity can even be a safety issue; a geomicrobiologist was injured in her own lab when a young male staff member wouldn’t listen to her.
Women of color frequently find themselves subjected to role incredulity. On Twitter, several medical doctors described being mistaken as the wife or girlfriend of a physician, as Dr. Uché Blackstock recently noted: “For the umpteenth time, I was asked again today by a parking garage attendant (**looking at my MD license plate for hospital parking), ‘Are you the doctor or is your husband?’” Similarly at a fellowship welcome picnic, Dr. Jennifer Huang was mistakenly assumed to be another fellow’s girlfriend or wife, and Dr. Nancy Yen Shipley was assumed to be the wife of a medical doctor at a fellowship interview. Dr. Yen Shipley commented, “I mean, I’m a wife. Of someone else. Who is not at the fellowship mixer.”
Role incredulity can even happen to women working in positions that aren’t male-dominated. Author Kalani Pickhart works in a university staff role. She recently shared that when faculty find out that she is publishing a novel, “You can see their brain short-circuit like, ‘Wait, you’re not supposed to be capable of anything but making my copies.’” In another example, a cosmetologist has had clients request a male employee do their makeup because “those types are just so much better.”
Role incredulity is harmful for both individuals and organizations. Not only must women manage their emotions while being doubted repeatedly and expend extra time and energy to assert their roles, but it can also hamper their career paths. In situations where evaluations may be based on timely responses, such as in customer service or technical support, a woman’s ratings may be lower simply because she must spend time defending her expertise before she can attend to the customer’s problem. When women are not seen as a leader, engineer, or physician in the same way than men are, they may be less likely to be hired into male-dominated roles or to be considered for promotions. Within organizations, role incredulity serves to maintain gender inequity and thwarts the benefits of an inclusive workforce. When only a certain profile or type of employee (typically, white male) is seen as capable of expressing authority or exercising leadership, the organization misses out on the wisdom and perspectives of underrepresented groups — perspectives that have been shown to increase organizational performance.
But organizational leaders, workplace allies, and women themselves can take steps to prevent and correct role incredulity. Here are a few we’ve seen in our own work that can help.
Set norms. First, organizational leaders can model equality and set norms for the rest of the organization using practices to help curtail role incredulity. Such practices could include:
- Making name and title introductions standard in all settings in which individuals may not know each other well.
- Using auto-generated signatures in company email systems that include names, position titles, and credentials.
- Announcing promotions over companywide email and introducing those who are promoted with their new titles in all meetings for a set period of time.
- Instituting a culture where everyone wears a name tag or ID badge that includes position titles.
- Adding position titles to the name display on web conferencing platforms, and issuing nameplates with position titles for desks and door labels in physical offices.
Additionally, be aware of how your organization is signaling roles in its communications. Use images of people — of all races and genders — in various positions in promotional materials, and make sure your company is living into these representations in its promotion and hiring practices. For example, in a medical environment, images on the walls and websites could show men in nursing roles and women in physician roles, and include people of varying races, ethnicities, and ages, reflecting the reality of the organization. And if professional titles (Dr., Rev., Coach, Professor, etc.) are used with names, use them for everyone. Untitling women while using professional titles for men is another way that role incredulity is perpetuated.
Be an ally. As a boss or colleague, step in to emphasize the roles women have in your organization. When introducing female colleagues, include their title: “I’d like you to meet Hailey Williams, our chief operating officer.” If you hear your coworker’s role misidentified, speak up on their behalf: “Hannah is serving as the lead architect for this project.” One woman’s male subordinate came up with a solution for informal settings to avoid the mistaken assumption that he was in charge: “In public, he frequently addressed me as ‘boss’ rather than my name.”
While initially it can feel awkward or embarrassing to call attention to others’ mistakes, don’t let that stop you. If an introduction was not made, put the blame on yourself, “I’m sorry. I forgot to introduce you to Julie Lewis, our company president.” Or blame an external factor, such as stress or a change for a colleague’s misstep: “Darryl, there’ve been a lot of changes this past year. Perhaps you didn’t realize that Samantha is now the director of sales. She’ll be explaining the current situation to us today.”
As a woman, if you’re frequently in situations where your role isn’t acknowledged, develop a buddy system with a fellow woman to emphasize your titles. Going into the meeting, each of you can introduce the other: “This is Dr. Smith, she is dean of the science college.” “And this is Dr. Jones, she is the chair of the chemistry department.”
Own your mistakes. If you make a mistake about someone’s role, don’t just laugh it off or ignore it. Apologize and own it: “I’m so sorry, Dr. Davis, please forgive me.” But don’t stop there; learn from it. Moving forward work twice as hard to ensure you know people’s qualifications and roles. Do your homework in advance of meetings, conference calls, or events to learn who will be attending and ensure you know their positions and titles. Doing so will help you to prevent incorrect assumptions, offer an opportunity for you to step in and introduce or correct others, and set a good example.
Proactively identify your role. While the steps above will help in the long run, in the short term, many women will still find that they’re in situations where role incredulity rears its ugly head. In those instances, include your position title and credentials in your email signature and web conferencing platforms, and introduce yourself with your title in settings with new people and those you don’t know well. Don’t wait for someone to make the introduction for you: “Hi, I’m Dr. Harris, your surgeon,” or “Hello, I’m Kiana Green, the chief financial officer of the company. Today I’ll be presenting the current budget numbers and the projections for the coming fiscal year.”
If your role is misidentified, politely correct the misinformed person: “Actually, I’m the lawyer/physician/president/director.” Here humor or a light touch can be helpful: “I’ve been doing this work for over 10 years, and I’m pretty good at it.” Most often role incredulity is not intentional, and it can be helpful to educate others about our titles and positions. While not an excuse customers, patients, and clients are often just acting on ingrained stereotypes. Informing others of your role can help to reduce these biases and assumptions. When one surgeon informed her patient’s husband of his role incredulity, he changed his tone, saying, “Thank you, ma’am, for everything.”
These solutions may seem superficial when the problem with role incredulity is systemic. But by taking steps to change workplace norms, we will slowly but surely promote gender equity in attitudes and stereotypes.