It’s not a compliment to praise a woman’s social skills at work, study suggests

ITHACA, N.Y. — Complimenting a woman for being collaborative or a social butterfly will not give the praise you think it does. Recent research by a team at Cornell University suggests compliments that reinforce gender stereotypes, including positive ones, can make co-workers actually feel frustrated and less likely to engage in these behaviors.

“We find that one reason why women feel more frustrated than men by these positive gendered expectations is that women and men face gender stereotypes that differ in the extent to which they affirm a sense of autonomy,” says Devon Proudfoot, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell, in a university release.

American culture has its roots in independence and maintaining an autonomous sense of self. Yet, when it comes to women, these ideals often give way to the expectation that women should act subservient, interdependent, and agreeable with others.

“We find that this conflict helps explain women’s frustration toward the positive gender stereotypes they experience,” explains Proudfoot.

Compliments don’t always translate across cultures

These gender expectations bleed out into the modern workforce. Surveys suggest men and women differ in their beliefs about what constitutes success and work advancement. Researchers say the perception is that men show more independent qualities, such as assertiveness. Conversely, desirable traits for women include collaborativeness and being sociable. Despite these beliefs, the study finds that pointing these traits out to female employees frustrates them.

However, study authors note the dissatisfaction may not apply universally. The team suggests cultural attitudes behind selfhood are key to how women react to gender-related compliments. For example, they found that women in non-Western cultures such as India do not have the same resentment towards these compliments.

The study involved recruiting participants from five different studies to examine their reactions to positive gender expectations. Study authors asked people to recall a time when they received a gender-related compliment and how they felt about it. They found that women were angry and frustrated when someone said they should act collaboratively or socially, while telling men they should act assertively or decisively.

The team then compared the reactions of women and men in the United States to those in India. The country boasts a more collectivistic culture than the U.S., where social connection and interdependence is more highly valued than autonomous independence. Women in India were less likely to feel upset about positive gender stereotypes because it aligns with their cultural goals.

“What I find interesting is thinking how these Western cultural ideals around autonomy and independence intersect with gender and gendered expectations,” says Proudfoot. “Our research considers how people’s experiences of gendered trait expectations are dependent on the cultural context they grew up in and the ideal model of self promoted by that culture.”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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