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Insidious ways gender bias comes into the workplace

March 31, 2021  |  5 min read
5 Ways gender bias impacts women in the workforce

5 Ways gender bias impacts women in the workforce

As we close out 2021’s Women’s History Month, now is a worthy time to reflect on the celebratory, pro-women statements made at the beginning of each March, and how we intend to do the obvious: carry on our support for women throughout the rest of the year and produce real results, including in the workplace. 

In recent years, the state of female representation in the workplace has seen measurable improvements and bright spots. As of 2019, more companies had higher numbers of female C-level executives than in previous years. In February, Thasunda Brown Duckett became the second Black female CEO currently in the Fortune 500, and the third-ever Black woman in Fortune 500 history. The performance of women in their careers, and particularly in leadership roles, has been lauded with statistics time and time again, and particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic: Silicon Valley Business Journal found that women working for a female CEO are less likely to feel burned-out since the Covid pandemic began; and according to research from consultancy Zenger/Folkman, women have not only been better leaders during the pandemic, they were also found to slightly outperform men all the time. 

However, we are still far from equity when it comes to women and the workplace. Among other noteworthy and persisting inequalities, the “gender pay gap” still exists. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, typically, Latinas are paid 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; Native American women are paid 60 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; White, non-Hispanic women are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; Asian American and Pacific Islander women overall are paid 85 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Across all racial and ethnic groups, women in the United States are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. 

Despite the statistics we cited earlier, women were also disproportionately harmed in the Covid era: During the pandemic, women, and especially women of color, are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed

As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, bias of any kind isn’t always intentional or overt—frequently, bias that helps create a company’s culture from the recruitment stage and on is unconscious and informed by systemic failings in our businesses, education systems and communities. 

Unconscious gender bias is defined as unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, stemming from traditions, norms, values, culture and/or experience. Here, as we commit to continuing our efforts to support women in the workforce beyond Women’s History Month, we’ll look at a few of the more insidious ways that gender bias impacts women in the workplace. 

Applications modeled for men

Bias that impacts women in the workplace can start even before the recruitment phase—it sometimes begins at the job posting itself. Although it’s occasionally written off as an unfounded statistic, research has shown that men are often more inclined to apply for a job that they, at least on paper, appear less qualified for. According to LinkedIn, women feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria on a job posting in order to apply, while men usually apply after meeting about 60%.

For this reason, job listings with descriptions that are too long or too rigid (i.e. making very specific requests regarding years of experience, previous experience, and required skills) can deter women. As an alternative, experts suggest that using the job listing to focus on the performance objectives of the role and what the person will be expected to accomplish could create greater gender diversity among applicants. 

In addition, what Forbes referred to as “masculine-coded” word choice—including words like “aggressive,” “competitive” and “dominate”—in job listings can also play a role in preventing more women from applying, as they are often viewed as positive character traits in men but negative character traits in women. 

Norms self-perpetuate 

As of December of 2019, women held 50.04% of American jobs, excluding farm workers and the self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the amount of representation differs based on industry as well as leadership level: for example, in the US STEM field, women make up only 27% of workers, while women currently hold only 31 — or 6.2% — of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies

One reason for overly homogenous, male-dominated workplaces or departments can be when finding a “company/culture fit” turns into zeroing in on candidates who are likeable because they remind you of yourself—in the case of offices or departments where there are more men currently working, this means more men are likely to be hired. In addition, according to McKinsey research, men can become apprehensive about whether or not they’ll be able to talk with—and therefore mentor—their female coworkers in the same way they’d be able to with their fellow male coworkers.

In general, norms self-perpetuate, and the more we see something, the more we accept it. When senior leadership positions or specific fields are occupied more often by men, the idea that men are naturally better leaders or more skilled in certain roles is perpetuated. 

Differing access to development and promotion 

Continuing on our last point, statistics show that women frequently have less access to company leadership, which translates to less access to development opportunities and promotions. According to the International Labour Organization, women reported far fewer interactions with a senior leader than their male counterparts, and this gap widens with career advancement—at the senior management level, only 51% of women compared to 62% of men reported that they interacted with a company leader at least once a week.

It’s easy to guess how less frequent access to senior leadership means less opportunity—the more familiar we are with someone, the more likely we are to know and believe in their skills, and see them as qualified for more responsibility. But without guessing, the numbers show a significant difference in who gets promoted: McKinsey research shows that at every step along the US pipeline, the odds of advancement for men are about twice those for women, and nearly four times as many men as women at large companies make the jump from the executive committee to CEO. 

Pro-male and pro-childless bias 

Despite changing attitudes about working women, traditional gender roles still put domestic work, and especially childcare, disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Although American mothers are more likely to be working now than in past decades, they spend more time on child care today than did moms in the 1960s, and married American mothers spend almost twice as much time on housework and child care than do married fathers. Globally, Women spend three times as much time doing unpaid care and domestic work as men do. 

As a consequence, when criteria like availability and geographical mobility are heavily emphasized in the recruitment or promotion process, working mothers are automatically less likely to be promoted in comparison to their male or childless counterparts. 

Overconfidence 

In a previous blog post, we went over the bias blindspot, or the failure to spot your own biases even when you can point out the biases of others. 

In the workplace, managers can be overconfident in their capacity to make impartial judgements, leading them to make recruitment decisions without feeling the need to consult others or implement technology that helps filter out bias in the recruiting process. According to Lazlo Bock, former CPO of Google, “Too many people see hiring as an instinct art form, honed by years of their own experience: when asked, three-fourths of people involved in the interview process at elite law, banking, and consulting firms admitted to making hiring decisions based on their gut.”

It’s for this exact reason that Bower works tirelessly to provide advisement and develop tech and testing that our clients use to find top quality candidates while growing company diversity—with measurable results.

In the journey to achieving a better world for women in the workplace, it’s not all a rollercoaster of happy and sad statistics. In our next post, we’ll cover some of the organizations making a difference today when it comes to intersectional advancement in the working world. Until next time! 

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