12/03/2010 11:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ginger Rogers, Competency, and Women

"Jan" was sitting in a meeting and had a great insight into the issue being discussed. She enthusiastically put it out to the group, and waited for people's response. Nothing. No one commented or even nodded. The lack of response threw her for a loop. She thought she had something valuable to contribute, and yet her suggestion wasn't even recognized. Maybe she wasn't a leader after all? Maybe her contribution was not as significant as she thought?

A few minutes later, "Jack" restates her idea and everyone thinks the idea is brilliant. "Jan" scratches her head. She thinks to herself, "That's what I just said. So why is everyone all over it when he says it and mute when I say it?"

I've told this vignette to countless groups of women and every time women enthusiastically nod in agreement. Apparently "Jan's" moment of invisibility, doubt, and subsequent bewilderment is a common experience among women. One woman offered a solution. She was a cancer researcher, she told the group, and she said that this happened to her repeatedly for years. One day when the male researcher restated her comment, instead of remaining silent, she said, "I'm so happy you love my idea!"

It's often said that one problem with women taking on leadership roles is that they lack confidence. Well, if your initiatives are greeted with indifference, what do you expect?

I think it would help women if they realized they are fighting a battle they don't even know they are fighting: gender schemas.

In her exploration of why women's advancement crept along at such a snail's pace, Virginia Valiant, a psychologist at Hunter College in New York, identified gender schemas a decade ago. Gender schemas are cultural assumptions we hold about men and women that are unconscious. One assumption is that women are assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. It's the opposite for men. Right from the get-go, women aren't seen as leaders. So if you think you are being held to a higher standard, it's not your imagination. It's the Ginger Rogers syndrome: she has to do everything Fred does except backwards and in high heels. And nowadays, in stilettos.

In this schema, masculinity gets entwined with competence and femininity with incompetence. We've seen this conundrum for women in business and politics. If you are competent, and therefore masculine, then you are unlikeable as a woman. If you are feminine, then you are likeable but assumed incompetent. So Hillary isn't well liked because she is competent and therefore appears masculine. And Sarah who plays up her femininity is liked even though her competence is in question.

The shocking thing is that women hold this assumption too. A woman might think she is competent, but doesn't assume other women are. That might explain in part why women haven't been the greatest champions of other women.

In one experiment called the "Goldberg paradigm" researchers asked men and women in one group to evaluate a particular article or speech supposedly written by a man. Then they asked a similar group to judge the same material; this time supposedly a woman. In countries all over the world, participants rated the very same words higher coming from a man.

Now all of this is changing. Women at entry levels usually start on an equal playing field and might not see gender schemas kick in immediately, but the higher they go, the more likely they'll run into it. Also women are rising up the ranks and lifting others along like never before. The plethora of women's organizations whose sole purpose is to support women is nothing less than revolutionary.

The moral of the story? Don't marginalize a sister and don't let her marginalize you. Stand up for yourself, stand up for her, and expect her to stand up for you. Acknowledge the importance of what she says and does, tell her publicly it resonates with you if it does. Don't' wait to tell her later at the water cooler. When women fight this battle together, we join a community of support that will enable all of us, where our competencies will be heard and counted. Even while wearing stilettos.