07/20/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Can Do What Mayer and Slaughter Do

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 seven 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," says Amy Cuddy in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, "Just Because I'm Nice, Don't Assume I'm Dumb."

According to cultural stereotypes and expectations, mothers are more likely to be perceived as warm because they take care of children and family, and therefore 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 mothers, be warned: you can't be perceived as both.

Or can you?

Tackling unconscious stereotypes is a whole different ball game 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 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 counterexamples.

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 simply talking about being mothers can make them 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 1, she came along with me to visit offices where I was doing volunteer work. When she was 4, 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


  • Visit Harvard's project on implicit bias at Click on the demonstration site and take the ten- to fifteen-minute Gender-Career Implicit Association Test (IAT), which reveals the association most of us have between family and females and between career and males. Send the IAT link to friends and have them take the test. Talk about the results at a playgroup, coffee date or family dinner.

  • How and when can you use yourself as a counter-stereotype? Make a point of talking about Mayer, Slaughter and other examples of mothers who don't fit the subconscious mold. And yes! Men can be Father MythBusters too!
  • Read and share:

  • How Stereotypes About Warmth and Competence Impact Mothers
  • Tips for Mothers for Busting Subconscious Stereotypes
  • Identity Whiplash: An Invisible Epidemic Among Mothers and Fathers
  • Read and share articles about mothers as CEO's. It doesn't matter what they say, it's the CEO and Mom words in the headline and visualizing that person that still busts stereotypes. For example, this Wall Street Journal article sent to me by @rewarewa05 . When Mom Is CEO: "Something Usually Has to Give."
  • Another counter-stereotype for you. In our house we are also fans of Kari Byron (who I met once!) from the MythBusters TV show. She is also a MythBuster about women and mothers and science.

  • Join the conversation on Twitter and on my Facebook page.