As part of my research for Professionelle's "How to Own Your
Career" seminar, I dug into where the oh-so-typical "good girl"
behaviours of professional women come from. In the process I
was hit between the eyes with the concept of unconscious gender
bias, the seeds of which are sown very early in our lives. We
all - all! - grow to expect different things from men than we do
from women, and these gendered generalisations shape both how women
see themselves, and how the world sees women.
About the same time, Galia was researching her piece on the
gender pay gap. She found that even when you correct for the
obvious variables, like educational achievement, years of
experience, full time or not, and occupation mix, there's a small
but stubborn disparity that can't be explained away. You're left
with the hypothesis that the last part of the gap is due to gender
bias of some sort.
When we began Professionelle in 2007 we were fairly sure that if
we could help spread the word about the business case for "women at
the top" then the numbers would start to shift in the right
direction. Bzzz, wrong, zero points. The biannual NZ Census of
Women's Participation and the Australian EoWA equivalent have been
offering up a few pockets of improvement but as the NZ EEO
Commissioner, Dr Judy McGregor, rightly described it, women's
progress into senior positions has been "glacial".
For a while it perplexed me. Chairs of Boards, charged with
creating shareholder value and open to the evidence that women
directors are correlated with enhanced returns, were seemingly
sincere when they stated they could not find suitably qualified
women directors even though they wanted to. Similarly, some
organisations that have provided a mix of networking and flexible
working opportunities, instituted relevant measurements, and in
some cases even linked managers' performance ratings to the
diversity of their team, have still failed to shift the dial far on
drawing more women through the pipeline.
There's a limit to how much blame can be laid at the door of Old
Boys' networks and the affinity bias that fuels them ie the
tendency to choose people who remind us of ourselves in some way
and who feel familiar and 'safe' to us. Board Chairs and CEOs are
aware of these factors, know they risk being called on them and as
a result, I believe, take increasing care to make choices that
appear independent of these factors. But something is going on, and
it has to do with a bias so deep-seated we are often oblivious to
A worked example
Take a look at the picture below, of a businessman standing by
an old church doorway.
And next a picture of a businesswoman in the same place:
And now - don't overthink it - who is the taller?
In 1991, Biernat did an experiment like this, with pictures of
matched-height men and women standing against a set point of
reference like a door or a desk, and asked college student
observers to gauge the height of each man and woman in feet and
inches (including shoes). The men were consistently judged to be
Seeing is not believing
Why? Height is, after all, a relatively easy measure to be
objective about, and there were no incentives for the respondents
to over-endow the men versus the women in the pictures.
What's going on is this: as we grow up we learn that men on
average are taller than women. It's statistically true, and
it's a useful thing to know for when something's out of reach and
we have a sea of faces to choose a helper from. In this
specific case, however, the man is not taller. Like the woman he's
paired with, he is an individual, and there's no reason for the two
of them to conform to the average. Yet many of us see them as if
they were representative of men and women in general, just as
Biernat's college students did.
Why? Why do we let our well-grounded expectations for the
population colour our perceptions of individuals to the extent we
don't see the evidence before our eyes? The fundamental reason for
our reliance on these generalisations is how we sort and store
information in our heads. Enter the word "schema".
A schema is a cognitive framework or set of hypotheses about a
category that helps us organize and interpret the vast amount of
information we have learned and experienced about it. It helps us
know how the category is likely to perform, and that in turn helps
us plan forward. We have these mental shortcuts about all sorts of
categories of things or people… sticky tape, cats, taxi drivers…
and they save us having to reassess and re-evaluate every time we
meet a situation containing the category (Valian 1999).
When these schemas are about what we can expect from men and
women they are called gender schemas. It is very important to note
that men and women form the same gender schemas, seeing each sex
the same way. The research is very clear on this and I emphasise it
lest anyone think the "problems" lie only in men's heads. In
Biernat's experiment, both male and female college students rated
the men as taller.
There are many aspects to gender schemas. However, thumbnail
sketches of the key psychological traits of each in middle class
western society are:
- Men: oriented to take action, independent, assertive, logical
(summed up as "agentic")
- Women: oriented to others' needs, nurturing, expressive (summed
up as "communal")
While schemas are hugely useful to us, they do have weaknesses.
The key ones are that gender schemas, like all schemas, are self
reinforcing, potentially inaccurate and largely unconscious.
Self reinforcing means that we are more likely to notice and to
remember things that fit our schema about a category and to dismiss
or forget individual observations that do not match our
expectations. This makes it hard for us to update our schemas
once they have formed.
Emma Renolds , researched classroom teachers and their
attitudes. One teacher, who held a common schema that primary aged
girls were hardworking but fundamentally untalented, referred to a
highly academically able 11-year old girl as "bossy" and "not as
clever as she thinks she is". It was more comfortable for the
teacher to disparage what she saw as an outlier than to change her
schema. By contrast, she very readily accepted a highly able boy in
the same class, saying, "He was born clever, that one," because she
expected boys to be innately talented - if often lazy.
Part of the self-reinforcing mechanism around schemas is that we
are also likely to set higher standards for evidence that
contradicts our expectations. In other words, it takes more
to convince us that what we are seeing is not just a fluke.
Biernat's experiment showed how a schema is likely to be wrong
about individuals even when it is well-founded for the population.
In addition, if gender-based generalisations can lead us to get
something as straightforward as height wrong, how are we to handle
judgements on characteristics like competence and leadership where
there are no objective metrics? This is where the schema about the
population itself can be wrong. For example, working mothers
and part time workers are implicitly assumed by many in the
corporate world to be less committed to work. Remember those words
of Donald Trump on working mothers that one of our contributors
She's not giving me 100%. She's giving me 84%, and 16% is going
towards taking care of children.
Of course, the fact, cited above, that schemas resist updating
even in the face of repeated, conflicting evidence also means they
risk becoming inaccurate.
Going back to height, it's a curious fact that while only 4% of
American men are over 74 inches tall, 36% of corporate American
CEOs are that tall, or more (Judge and Cable 2004). Apparently,
similar patterns are observed among Generals and Admirals. If we
accept that Board Chairs do not scribble "and make sure you
bring us a tall one" in the margin of their recruiting brief,
perhaps there is another process at work, one that proceeds
unconsciously from an implicit positive association of height with
professional competence and social esteem. (If you're
wondering, among women height is also positively correlated with
success, and income. Your mother was right to tell you not to
Many of our assumptions and generalisations about men and women
operate largely below the level of our awareness, and are
consequently very difficult to track or control. They are doubly
difficult to grasp because, as professionals, most of us sincerely
believe that we make decisions and choices based on fair and
logical criteria, and we expect the same to hold when others are
But it seems we don't judge fairly, or not fully, and not all
the time. Why not? Because we are the product of our cultures and
many years of experience and observation, that's why. If you don't
believe me, try this next test.
Implicit association test
To quote the Implicit Association website,
"most studies available at Project Implicit examine thoughts and
feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or
outside of conscious control. This web site presents a method
that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more
convincingly than has been possible with previous methods."
Try it! I have done the test that looks at Gender and Career. As
a professional woman myself, and the co-director of a business
dedicated to the career advancement and resilience of other
professional women, I, surely, should have no bias against women in
careers. Yet my results show that in my head there's a moderate
implicit association between women and family and between men and
career. Even knowing what the test was trying to determine, I still
produced this result.
Some parts of a schema are defined by what's not there. One
element missing from the gender schema for women is leadership.
Another, which I'll explore here, is professional competence. Men
and women alike expect women to be less competent, and should a
woman be unequivocally able (like the 11 year old girl in Renold's
study), the tendency is to find a reason for this, such as: she
must have worked very hard to do so well…
A brief explanation of why 'woman' and 'professional competence'
develop as out-of-synch schemas includes these elements:
- We perceive men as oriented to action and tasks and to logic,
and women to nurturing and expressing and emotions. The former
cluster is perceived as more relevant to professional
- Most senior professionals are men; every prestigious or high
paying profession is populated at the highest levels by men. By
contrast, the lower levels are disproportionately occupied by
women. Thus men "look right" for the top jobs and we perceive them
as likely to succeed at them. Having perceived them that way, our
schemas self-reinforce so that each minor male success is noted and
- Mothers' expectations of their children in part reflect the
mothers' gender schemas (Jacobs & Eccles 1992) - and children's
self beliefs are apparently more strongly affected by how their
mothers perceive them, than how they perceive themselves. It
follows that our mothers' gender schemas that, for example, girls
are less competent at maths and science will to some extent become
a self fulfilling prophecy for us, their daughters.
In a follow-up article I'll explore the practical implications
for professional women's careers of the unconscious bias that flows
from our gender schemas that lack professional competence and
leadership for women. In a final article, I'll review what
effective remedies exist for this sort of bias.
In parallel, Galia has been reflecting on the many
unreasonable-yet-unquestioned generalisations about men and women
and is writing a piece on the myth that no-one wants to work for a
If you'd like to read more on the topic meanwhile, try these
very recent Australian publications:
Gender Diversity in management - targeting untapped potential
Sept 2011 (AIM - Australian Institute of Management)
bias towards women in leadership Sept 2011 (CEDA - Committee
for Economic Development of Australia)