How to Find and Fix Gender Bias at Your Firm

Businesswoman opens door to brick wall5 ways women get shoved aside.

By Ida O. Abbott
Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know

Gender bias reflects entrenched beliefs and assumptions about women based on stereotypes about appropriate roles and behaviors for women.

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Unconscious thoughts about the kinds of work women are and are not suited for, especially if they are mothers, remove highly qualified women from consideration for leadership opportunities and positions.

In the past, working women suffered overt discrimination and explicit bias. They were told outright they were not “fit” for certain jobs, were too emotional and unreliable to be given responsible roles, and were taking the place of men who needed to support families. Sometimes the bias was ostensibly intended to “protect” women and occasionally it was hostile. But it was out in the open and women understood the barriers they faced.

For the most part, women no longer experience this kind of explicit bias. But the underlying thoughts and stereotypes that support gender bias have not gone away. They remain underground, in the subconscious where people may not realize they hold the thoughts at all.

Researchers at Yale found that scientists at six major research institutions, when presented with resumes that were identical except for their names (John and Jennifer),

  • viewed the male applicant more favorably than the woman,
  • were significantly more likely to offer the man a job and career mentoring,
  • and set his salary at $4,000 higher than the woman’s.

The scientists’ unconscious bias led them to judge the man more competent and more worthy of support than the identically qualified woman.

This “second-generation gender bias” is subtle and often invisible but it is firmly embedded in “cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.” This unspoken but potent bias in favor of men is not deliberately intended to harm women. But when leaders make judgments and decisions based on inaccurate and biased assumptions, they give men unfair advantages although they may not realize it.

Unconscious gender bias plays out in many ways. The effects of gender stereotypes about the ambitions of men and women provide a good illustration. Sponsors look for individuals who are strong performers and hungry to succeed. But women who want to reach the top face a dilemma.

Having openly high career ambitions is expected for men. It is a hallmark of masculinity. But many people believe women are not – or should not be – ambitious. So, women with the same aspirations as men are judged harshly because they seem unfeminine and unnatural.

Assertively reaching for the top goes against the norm that women in our society should be modest. When women who want to move up the career ladder advocate for themselves in order to make their accomplishments and aspirations known, they are criticized for being

  • braggarts,
  • “overly ambitious” or
  • “self-important.”

To be safe, many women keep their ambitions to themselves – which makes them appear less ambitious to potential sponsors.

Even when the evidence is to the contrary, many people cling to the belief that women are less ambitious and place lower priority on their careers. In fact, young women in business are as openly ambitious as men are early in their careers. Recent studies from the Pew Foundation found that young women today value career success more than men:

“Two-thirds (66 percent) of young women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59 percent of young men.”

Among people aged 35 to 64 who said “being successful in a high-paying career or profession” was very important to them, the percentage of women and men was the same (42 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Mid-level women and men share a strong desire to advance to the next role and women aspire to be CEOs in equal proportions to men. Yet when women try to get ahead using the same career advancement strategies as men, even when they do “all the right things,” they earn less and progress more slowly than men. What happens?

As they move along,

  1. Men receive more career-enhancing assignments than women do.
  2. Men have work that involves larger budgets and more staff, higher visibility, greater client contact and other work experiences that give them more attention from the C-suite or partnership.
  3. Men are appointed to committees and roles that deal with money, growth and strategy, while women are more frequently appointed to those that involve people and administration, which are less powerful and less valued.
  4. Men are invited to client pitches and business development activities while women are left to find clients on their own.
  5. Men are offered career-advancing international posts more frequently than women because it is assumed men will be freer and more willing to take them than women – especially married women – would be.

Men receive these advantages in large part because they are assumed to be ambitious and suited for leadership. At the same time, however, women are deprived of opportunities and resources that might draw attention to their leadership aspirations and abilities. So sponsors help propel men into positions of power and perpetuate the status quo, while women have to fend for themselves. The lack of sponsorship further impedes women’s progress, disheartening women and reinforcing the mistaken belief that they lack ambition.

This inaccurate belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Watching men with lesser credentials, ability or experience being offered better opportunities and moving higher in the organization convinces women that the odds of advancing to executive levels are stacked against them. Despite their confidence and desire to advance, women

  • do not receive the encouragement and support to reach for the top that men do, and
  • they come up against barriers that discourage them and raise doubts about whether the struggle to get there is worth it.

When almost all leaders are men, men on the rise can assume success is a possibility. Women cannot.

When they

  • see few or no women role models,
  • are not offered important business opportunities,
  • are excluded from informal networks and
  • do not have anyone who champions their success,

women feel they need to be exceptional to get ahead, and even if they are, the chances are slim. In these circumstances, some women may respond – not unreasonably – by lowering their ambitions or leaving their jobs.