Assertive, confident, and dominant are just some of the characteristics associated with leadership, yet when we think of employees that have those traits, we generally tend to think of men. The reasoning is years of hardwiring from a biological and anthropological history of women playing the role of nurturing caregiver. And sure women work differently than men, leaning towards a more collaborative style, but how does gender bias really affect women in the workplace?
How Hirable Are Women Compared to Men?
Cornell University conducted a study testing gender bias in the hiring process. Researchers submitted 1,276 fake resume for real jobs listing equivalent education credential and work experience with varied details hinting at the candidate’s gender and whether or not they had children. The study found that companies found men with kids were most hirable than men and women without kids, and women with kids the least hirable. The finding implies that companies found men with children responsible and stable, but skeptical about a woman’s ability to juggle motherhood and a job.
Roles Women Play
Women’s role as the mother, housekeeper, and supporter has extended into the workplace. The gender stereotype of men being ambitious and assertive and women as supportive and nurturing has shaped what is expected of women.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times article, “Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee,” she dissects the role of women as the helper in the office. Women will offer help more often in a communal setting making it easy for their contributions to disappear. In a study by New York University psychologist, Madeline Heilman, participants evaluated the performance of male and female employees who did or did not stay late to help their colleagues. After offering identical help, a man’s offer to help was rated 14% more favorable than a woman’s and conversely, when both men and women declined to help, the woman was rated 12% lower than that of a man’s.
The role of office helper seeps into tasks such as note taking, fetching coffee, mentoring young workers, or cleaning and organizing the office. Such role relegations stick women in a rut, often supporting C-level suites executives, difficult to rise above their delegated roles and be considered for promotions.
What’s That Feedback Going to Look Like?
Women and men are evaluated differently. Men are expected to be assertive, confident, and domineering and when lacking such characteristics are told to develop those skills while women who exhibit such characteristics are told to step back.
Related to the part about roles women play, because gender bias has structured a woman’s role as the helper, caretaker, and community matriarch, displaying any characteristics that do not align with those values are interpreted as being contrary or not being a team player.
In one study, where a total of 248 reviews from 180 people were collected, 58.9% of reviews for men contained critical feedback compared with 87.9% of the reviews received by women. And though men and women were both given constructive feedback, women received feedback that also included suggestions to “pipe down.” The feedback included observed personal traits as coming off too aggressive, abrasive, watching their tone, taking a step back to let others shine, and to be less judgmental.
Another study conducted by Yale University found that others, especially those in power, view women who talked a lot negatively. Finding them “domineering and controlling,” and consequently less suitable for leadership positions than men who spoke the same amount.
Though such traits are often associated with leadership skills, when applied to women, are seen as a negative.
Why the Double-Standard?
Women are ascribed certain characteristics such as caring, warm, polite, and sensitive. These traits, also known as descriptive stereotypes, have resulted in a “lack of a fit” between the personality a woman is supposed to have and actually has. Women who go against the prescribed norms are seen as violating their roles as women and penalized because of it.
For example, women who promote themselves are seen as violating modesty and therefore less hirable, women who negotiate for higher pay are seen as violating passivity, and women expressing anger are seen as violating warmth.
Leveling the Playing Field
Women themselves have to shift their mindsets and prioritize their own needs, rather than just be completely altruistic. This not only leads women to gain more influence but maintain more energy, avoid burning out, and ultimately being able to help more.
Women can benefit from mentorship and networks of women in leadership to help hone the skills necessary to break away from becoming overly “self-modest, self-effacing team players.”
Companies also need to take a step in breaking down gender biases by building a well-rounded team with both men and women in rich roles that extend beyond the stereotypes.
For example, NYC-based software company, CA Technologies created a Diverse Slate Program to ensure that candidates presented to hiring managers includes women, a person of color, a veteran, or a disabled individual. As a result, “CA’s 11,500-strong workforce in 36 countries reports a high level of satisfaction, with women scoring higher than men on 80 percent of the company’s key drivers of engagement in a recent survey.”
Acknowledging gender bias through training is another step in combating some of its more subtle effects. Facebook developed a training program focused on recognizing and discussing the different types of gender biases that exist in the workplace. This type of bias training is meant to highlight the more hidden forms of gender bias that seeps into performance evaluations, first impressions, maternity bias, and likability while creating a forum for discussion to diminish its negative effects.
Extinguishing long-held stereotypes is difficult but necessary in creating an open and fair work environment. Companies need to acknowledge the hidden forms of gender bias and encourage women to grow beyond constrained cliches without repercussions.