Gina, a CPA at a large accounting firm, is a new mother of twins. To help meet her demands at home, Gina asked the firm if she could cut back to an 80 percent schedule. The firm agreed to the schedule change with prorated salary and benefits. The arrangement seemed like the perfect solution, until:
- Gina’s colleagues, male and female, began to comment on her ‘short’ workdays;
- the quality of Gina’s assignments began to diminish;
- someone ‘forgot’ to invite Gina to the annual retreat; and
- Gina’s group leader didn’t include her on a major business pitch.
While some bias is open and overt, much more of it is hidden. We all have hidden biases about particular groups, places, and things. Hidden bias stems from our everyday sense of ‘the way things are,’ which informs our everyday workplace interactions. Bias affects what we notice about people, how we interpret their behavior and what we remember about them. We tend to notice, interpret and remember behavior that reinforces our biases. These assumptions are pervasive: both men and women make them. The biases that result affect our interactions both with people we know and with people we don’t know.
Gender bias, specifically, is our assumptions about the characteristics of men and women. For example, men generally are assumed to be assertive, reliable, competent and committed to their careers. Women … not so much. Every day each one of us makes small judgments about individuals based on everyday assumptions that arise automatically. The critical point: brief informal interactions accumulate and ultimately impact formal employment decisions. Even small judgments based on gender bias can have powerful cumulative effects on women’s careers.
The following are the most common patterns of gender bias encountered in the workplace.
The strongest and most explicit bias in today’s workplace is against mothers. Generally, maternal wall bias is triggered when motherhood becomes ‘salient’ or obvious to managers and colleagues. This typically occurs when a woman announces that she is pregnant, returns from maternity leave, or adopts a part-time or flexible schedule. Maternal wall bias stems from assumptions that mothers are not as competent as others, are not as committed to their jobs, and belong at home because they can’t be both good mothers and good workers. Fathers may run up against a comparable set of assumptions when they take an active role in caring for their families.
She isn’t competent enough
The truth of the common saying “women must try twice as hard to achieve half as much” is documented by more than a quarter century of social science. Women need to provide more evidence of job-related skills than their male counterparts before they are viewed as competent. Additionally, women are allowed fewer mistakes than men before they are judged incompetent.
What a witch!
Behavior that is acceptable in men often is considered unacceptable in women. A woman in a traditionally masculine job may be called a ‘witch,’ ‘hard to work with’ or ‘too ambitious’ – for the same behavior that helps a man establish himself as ‘assertive’ and ‘having leadership potential.’ The unspoken view in such situations is that women should be helpful, warm, understanding, and kind. In some workplaces, women are seen either as ‘likable, dependent…traditional women’ who are nice but incompetent or as ‘dominant, nontraditional women’ who are competent, but are disliked for violating unspoken norms that women should be inclusive and nurturing.
The gender wars
Workplaces create conflict among women when they evince approval of women who adhere to traditional feminine stereotypes (passive, nurturing, and allowing male supervisors to take the spotlight), but disapproval for women who buck such stereotypes. The most common workplace conflict among women is the generational conflict between older women who made it to the highest levels in their companies by closely following a traditional masculine career path and younger women who seek more flexible options, including part-time work.
The key to rooting out hidden bias is to raise managers’ awareness of their unconscious gender biases, create a culture of inclusiveness and audit relevant employment policies and procedures to ensure that they do not on their face or in application allow gender bias to creep into personnel decisions.
Having a workplace that is free from gender bias is becoming a business imperative as companies compete for employees and customers. Companies that work to eliminate bias will reap ample rewards – as well as have the satisfaction of knowing they are doing the right thing.
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