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Stereotype not only applies in obstructing opportunities for minority groups, but also in continuing to criticize minority groups even when they have achieved high success.

In his Thought for The Day, broadcast by the BBC, Professor Robert Beckford noted the success of the tennis player Serena Williams as she was made Sports Illustrated ‘Sports Personality of the Year’. Williams was the third woman to be appointed, and the first black woman.

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Despite this achievement (and Williams’ outstanding achievement as a tennis champion) Beckford noted the social media criticism of the award – that Serena Williams was ‘not sufficiently feminine’, and ‘too muscular’. The bias and bigotry continued and even suggested that the race horse American Pharoah would have been a better nomination for the award.

Examples of stereotype discrimination of this nature demonstrate just how far some societal attitudes still need to change – in this case, illustrating gender and ethnicity in combination as a source of stereotype prejudice.

(Robert Beckford,  Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 15 December 2015. Used with permission)

Stereotypes are prevalent in society. To illustrate how they can affect the workplace, this section will consider stereotypes in relation to older workers. But similar principles (with different reasons for stereotyping) can apply to women, disabled people, ethnic monitories, and so on.

To illustrate one form of stereotype, consider the position of older people in the workforce. Older people tend to be viewed as less capable in cognitive skills and as wordy and irritable (Nuessel, 1982; Braithwaite and Gibson, 1987; Coupland et al., 1991; Gold et al., 1994). On the other hand, older people are seen as more likely to be friendly than younger people (Chasteen et al., 2002). In the workplace, older workers tend to have reduced training and development opportunities, and they are seen as less trainable, less interested in developing their careers and so more suitable for lower skill or lower responsibility roles (Taylor and Walker, 1994).

But despite these stereotypes, the evidence shows that the advantages of older workers are often overlooked. For example, the potential benefits of older workers include that they are more experienced, mature and stable (Marshall, 1995), with higher crystallized intelligence (applied experience/wisdom) (Stuart-Hamilton, 1991). Brosi and Kleiner (1999: 101) found older workers to be more loyal and more committed to the organization. Despite some perceptions that older workers are slow to embrace change, in a study of dental practitioners’ response to change Watt et al. noted that ‘being older was not a barrier to change for some’ (2004: 487). Overall, research on older workers suggests that age rarely accounts for more than a 10% variation in manual work performance – with no variation for clerical workers (Rhodes, 1983). Indeed, McCann and Giles (2002) saw little difference in work performance between younger and older people, and may even favour the overall performance of older workers.

Therefore, one societal approach to avoid stereotype and subsequent discrimination towards older workers is to introduce laws to prevent it. Indeed, this has happened in many countries. For example, in the USA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was originally introduced to protect employees in the 45–65 age range, but the start age was subsequently lowered to 40 since ‘this was the age when most expert witnesses [to the US Senate] considered age discrimination in employment became evident’ (Macnicol, 2006: 235–6). In Europe, the European Council Directive 2000/78 sought to eliminate workplace age discrimination, and in the UK there were voluntary measures, then subsequent legislation – the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 and the Equality Act 2010. However, in contrast to the US approach which aimed to protect employees from a specific age, European and UK legislation was written to protect employees irrespective of their actual ages.

As we think about the impact of stereotyping towards individuals or groups, it is also necessary to consider the impact on the individuals themselves. Sherif (1956) found that when we develop strong loyalty within one group, we tend to develop negative perceptions of groups to which we do not belong. A similar result was identified by Tajfel (1970), who found that being categorized as one group could produce negative attitudes and beliefs about other groups. All of these findings may obviously affect stereotypes and prejudices, with groups and individuals not working to their best. However, in addition to group impacts, it is also important to look at the impact on the individuals who suffer stereotyping attitudes.

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