Shortly before Christmas, I wrote about the origins and theory
of unconscious gender bias that lurk in all of us, men and women.
In this second article I want to explore the practical implications
for professional women's careers of this kind of bias. It does make
gloomy reading but I promise that in a final article I'll review
the remedies, including (as always here at Professionelle) actions
you can take for yourself.
But first, a quick recap!
We all tend to associate a set of characteristics and behaviours
with men and another set with women. These associations and
expectations are called gender schemas. They are powerful mental
shortcuts that are largely unconscious. They are also self
reinforcing because they filter out observations about individuals
that don't fit the schemas we hold for the population overall - and
they also make us more likely to notice the observations that do
Here's an example central to this article: the gender schema for
men comfortably contains the expectations of competence and
professionalism. The one for women does not. If we're asked
to describe a competent professional the image that pops into our
heads is likely to be that of a man. A bungling man seems like an
exception to the competent-man pattern, while an inept woman
reinforces our scarcely-conscious expectation that she wouldn't be
quite as good as a man anyhow. To understand a little of why our
schemas develop this way, check
out my previous article.
Research on gender bias shows that, in practice, the career
playing field is tilted against women before they open their mouths
or show their resume. Because every situation and individual is
different, that tilt on the field can vary from the merest degree
through to something approximating the north face of the Eiger.
Regardless, the field is not level.
Gender schemas and their contents (or lack thereof) can affect
professional women's careers in four main ways. To a greater
or lesser extent:
- It's harder to get hired
- It's harder to get promoted
- It's harder to get credit for your achievements
- It's harder to be viewed as a leader
The research on this one is extensive and makes confronting
reading. A particularly well-known experiment was carried out by Steinpreis et al (1999). A CV for
an early career-stage academic job was sent for assessment by 285
male and female American psychology professors. Each professor
received the identical CV - but on half the documents the
candidate's name was given as Karen, and on the other half as
Brian. Male and female professors both rated Brian as more worthy
of hire than Karen. He had done adequate teaching, research and
service. She had not.
In a very different field - orchestras - women have long been
underrepresented. Renowned conductors have asserted that female
musicians have "smaller techniques" and are more temperamental.
Proving discrimination in hiring practices, however, was always
difficult until Goldin & Rouse (The American Economic Review,
2000) measured the effect of blind auditions. A screen was found to
increase a woman's chances of moving to second round auditions by
50% and "increased several-fold" that she would be selected in the
To quote McKinsey & Co, reporting on what
corporate diversity officers and experts told them,
despite [the officers' and experts'] best efforts, women are
often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men
are often promoted on potential.
They go on, "Management may be acting with best intentions-to
prevent women from failing - yet [this is] another mindset that
forms a barrier to advancing women." When you reflect on the gender
schema for women with its weak association with professional
competence, this attitude is no great surprise, even if it's beyond
So when we criticise women for failing to put their hat in the
job ring unless they believe they can do 90%+ of the role, where a
man will toss his in for about 50%, perhaps the women are
intuitively reflecting the tilt in the playing field! The bar we
have to jump over is different, and arguably higher, than the one
Getting Credit for Achievement
Many aspects of performance in the corporate and professional
service world are ambiguous in that they do not have objective
measures like accuracy or speed. Plus, many managers are pressed
for time. Lacking clear measures and adequate time to reflect on a
subordinate's performance, what might a manager do?
- Resort to norms
- Refer to expectations about the population as a whole, rather
than the individual's actual performance
- Rely on memories of previous experiences with other seemingly
All these processes attribute causes of success and failure to
the case in question. Common drivers of success are held to be
luck, effort, ability, and the nature of the task. Generally, a
woman's success will be seen as owing more to the first two drivers
and a man's to more of the last two. After all, he is implicitly
assumed to be capable, whereas her achievements are not expected,
are harder to credit, and require more proof.
As an example of this, let's go back to the Steinpreis
experiment. As well as the early-career job seeker's resume, they
also sent out an excellent CV for a candidate seeking academic
tenure. In a competitive environment for talent, this CV proved so
good that "Karen" and "Brian" were rated as equally likely to be
hired. However, the assessors scribbled four times more
cautionary comments in the margin of Karen's CV than Brian's. These
comments expressed need for reassurance that her performance really
was all it seemed to be. For example, "I would need to see evidence
that she had gotten these grants and publications on her own."
Being viewed as a leader
Galia really nailed the issues here in her recent bias-busting
article "No one wants to work
for a woman boss". In essence, leaders look like men;
women who act like men in order to also look like leaders risk a
backlash in the form of social or career punishment for stepping
outside female behaviour norms.
There was a notable discrimination case in the US in the 1980s.
Anne Hopkins, a candidate for partnership in an accounting firm,
had written more new business than any other candidate, but was
held over and then rejected for partnership because she was "too
aggressive", "too macho" and "wore too little make-up".
Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in the lead opinion:
An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose
positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and
impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively
and out of a job if they don't.
It's worth saying that gender bias extends to all sorts of
leadership situations that women encounter on their career
journeys. In a project management review situation, women who sit
in the position of leadership at the head of the table are about
50% less likely than men to be seen as a leader by uninvolved
observers (Porter & Geis 1981; Jackson et al 2007). Similarly,
women seeking to lead or influence a group receive markedly fewer
smiles and positive reinforcement from the team members than men do
- even when they use exactly the same words as a man. Both these
effects have been observed in both laboratory and real life
If you feel at times that you have to fight harder for attention
and acknowledgement than your male colleagues, be reassured you're
very likely not imagining it!
Molehills and Mountains
Does it seem like I'm overblowing the impact of gender bias on
women's careers? Can it really make much difference in the
scheme of things if a woman's ideas are occasionally credited to a
man in a meeting or if at some stage she has to wait a little
longer to land the job of her dreams?
Virginia Valian ("Why So Slow", 1999) makes a strong case that
these little knock-backs do indeed matter. She calls them the
'accumulation of disadvantage', a process as powerful as
compounding interest. An iterative organisation promotion
model built by Martell et al (1996) demonstrated that a bias in
evaluation or opportunity as small as 1% can result in 29% fewer
women at the top levels of a company after eight runs of the
Little molehills can become mountains. Some writers refer to the
outcome as the career glass ceiling, some as career labyrinths.
Choose any metaphor, but be aware that gender bias is out there and
it could be impinging on your career and business opportunities
However, don't despair! In my final article in this series I'll
review the interventions that can make a positive difference to
this challenging and pervasive issue.