Week after week another depressing media article emerges about how badly women fare in the workplace compared to men. The message is always the same – women are not viewed as being as equal, competent, or committed as men and they have to work harder to prove themselves to get promoted. Worse still, when they do advance, the rewards women reap are less than their male counterparts. Whilst many believe we are making progress on gender parity, the statistics do not support this view:
This suggests that current approaches to address gender bias are having minimal impact. Something different is needed if we are to make greater strides toward gender parity. In particular, we need to start addressing the root cause of bias.
Four main biases drive gender inequality in organisations:
Descriptive stereotypes are the traits we typically associate with men and women. Women are often described as warm, caring and sensitive, men as being competent, decisive and strong. Within the workplace greater value is placed on competence related traits, particularly as a person progresses toward senior positions. Since women are perceived to lack these traits they fare less well than their male counterparts (who are perceived to have them in abundance) when being assessed for senior positions. The mismatch between gender stereotypes and the traits required for a job role is what causes discrimination.
Prescriptive stereotypes are beliefs about the way men and women should behave. Women should be warm and caring and men should be strong and competent. When a woman or man behaves in a way that is not expected of their gender they face social penalties. For example, women who display authority are often less liked and less influential than men who display the same behaviour. Being less liked and less influential is what leads to discrimination.
Hostile sexism encapsulates the traditional view that prejudice is based on antipathy towards a minority group. Hostile sexists want to dominate women and hold derogatory beliefs toward them. Women are actively held back. This form of sexism is explicit and leaves people in no doubt if they have been on the receiving end of it. Whilst, unfortunately, there are still examples of such sexism towards women in the workplace, hostile sexism is frequently challenged and is thus becoming less prevalent.
Benevolent sexism is characterised by subjectively positive thoughts and feelings towards women, and a belief that women need to be protected by men. Because of its positive stance towards women, benevolent sexism seems harmless. However, women are still seen as inferior to men and it is this belief that leads to women being held back in the workplace.
An important point to note with all of the above gender biases is that both men and women can display these. Being a member of a group (e.g. a woman) does not exclude a person from having these biases toward their own group. In short, women too can be biased against other women.
In order to combat gender bias in the workplace organisations need to focus their attention on addressing these root causes of inequality.
Awareness and understanding of all forms of gender bias is the first step to addressing its negative impact. Our gender workshops are designed to raise awareness and generate discussion around how gender bias manifests itself in organisations.
Whilst understanding and awareness of bias is important, this does not necessarily provide people with the tools required to something about it. At The Bias Gym we have a range of solutions that specifically target the root cause of gender inequality. More information can be found in The Bias Gym.
Organisations have access to the best talent: there is no evidence that there are differences in the skills and abilities of men and women. Therefore, overlooking a person based on their gender is illogical and seriously hinders an organisation’s ability to recruit, retain and develop the best people.
Organisations perform better: businesses with greater gender equality at senior levels financially out perform those organisations that have more male dominated hierarchies. This has been demonstrated numerous times – too many to cite all the research here!