Gender bias is a popular topic these days, as it should be. Women play critical roles in society, make the majority of purchasing decisions, and make up just over 40% of U.S. heads of households. The data is easy to find – while they represent roughly 50% of the U.S. workforce, women hold only 5% of CEO positions, 24% of top executive roles globally, and 17% of board seats for Fortune 500 companies. While we recognize this disparity as unfair, and many are working to change it, we’ve not yet meaningfully altered the trajectory of women in leadership. How can it be that America’s corporations, which have passionately emphasized hiring and promoting women for decades, still show such sluggish progress? Are leaders being insincere? Are their efforts misguided? Are women opting out? Or is something more nuanced at play?
When it comes to gender bias, it’s helpful to distinguish between its legal definition and its unconscious manifestation. Legally, gender bias is defined as unequal treatment in employment opportunity (such as promotion, pay, benefits and privileges), and expectations due to attitudes based on the sex of an employee or group of employees. Like all forms of discrimination, this kind of bias is difficult to prove, and also difficult to uncover. Most seasoned leaders, having spun through no less than ten rounds of harassment training, aren’t foolish enough to overtly discriminate against a protected group. But this doesn’t mean that bias is a thing of the past. Unconscious gender bias – which majors in subtlety – is very much alive; true to its description, it often goes undetected by even its most well-meaning purveyors.
Unconscious gender bias is very much alive.
Take Sharon’s situation, for instance. She’s experienced, tough, and results-oriented. She’s also 5’1. In the past, her femaleness (combined with her small stature) created problems for those who sought to define her by their mental shortcuts. As a woman, Sharon must be nurturing and people-centric, right? Nope. Sharon is about the business, and relentlessly so. Sharon’s small stature also caused people to look down on her, literally and figuratively. But Sharon is a force. She has no problem showing her colleagues what a big difference a “small” woman can make! For years, she worked hard to compensate for the double blow her gender and stature dealt by being louder, taking greater risks, and always staying a step ahead of her male counterparts. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a problem, except Sharon wasn’t being herself. This daily “show” was a highly conscious effort for her. Her male colleagues grew to respect Sharon and value her contributions, but partially because she was modeling them – behaving in more traditionally male ways, reflecting the norms of the company, giving those in power an effortless way to relate to her. Over time, it was easy for Sharon’s colleagues to recognize her value, but it hadn’t been so simple for Sharon. Women are accustomed to accommodating others. It begs the question – is it a woman’s responsibility to give her colleagues “effortless” ways to relate to her? Or is it more important for them to learn to value the unique contributions women add to their teams?
How else does gender bias show up in the workplace?
Corinne Moss-Racusin, a social psychologist at Skidmore College, found that even among scientists – where bias has no place – unconscious preferences work against women. In her 2012 research, STEM faculty were given resumes randomly – some with the name Jennifer, some with the name John. In an article published in Gender News[i], Alexander Watts writes, “Despite having the exact same qualifications and experience as John, Jennifer was perceived as significantly less competent. As a result, Jenifer experienced a number of disadvantages that would have hindered her career advancement if she were a real applicant. Because they perceived the female candidate as less competent, the scientists in the study were less willing to mentor Jennifer or to hire her as a lab manager. They also recommended paying her a lower salary. Jennifer was offered, on average, 13% less than John. Even the women favored John, proving that bias is more than an in-group issue.”
Women are uniquely gifted to lead.
When we ignore or deny the female advantage and hold up typical male behaviors as the very definition of leadership, women attempt to be more like their male colleagues, assuming the only way to combat this bias is to conceal what is uniquely female about them. In my book, Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, I tell the story of Lisa, a CMO who for years adopted a male-centric strategy for success. Beyond her data-driven, logical leaning, she avoided workplace friendships with women, and even dressed perceivably masculine by wearing pants suits and concealing her curves. Years later, she realized her strategy was failing. Her team saw her as inauthentic and inaccessible. And by burying her true nature beneath a façade, she was also failing herself.
The truth is, women are uniquely gifted to lead. We must be clear about the value we add, stand firmly in it, and share our unique perspectives strategically – so that our value becomes undeniably clear. The companies we work for must acknowledge that bias exists, and work to consciously combat it by challenging assumptions and avoiding mental shortcuts in hiring, promoting, and engaging leaders. Otherwise, it remains a barrier to equality…in the workplace, and beyond.
[i] Watts, Alexander W. Why does John get the STEM job rather than Jennifer? Gender News, June 2, 2014. Accessed 3/10/16, http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2014/why-does-john-get-stem-job-rather-jennifer.
As Founder and CEO of TJF Career Modeling LLC, Tara Jaye Frank helps leaders, groups, and companies define their vision and develop strategies to advance their culture and leadership goals. Tara also works part-time at Hallmark Cards, Inc., where she holds the newly identified role of Corporate Culture Advisor, reporting to the President. In this position, she collaborates with executives to strengthen the corporate culture and enable Hallmark’s long-term success.
Prior to her current position, Tara chartered and led Hallmark’s Multicultural Center of Excellence, whose work inspired a more holistic approach to leveraging culture as an innovative path to relevance. Tara was first hired by Hallmark as a greeting card writer in 1996. At the time of her promotion to executive management a decade later, she became Hallmark’s first Black female VP, and the youngest person to rise into senior leadership in Hallmark’s history.
Tara has dedicated more than a decade of her career to helping leaders reach their own professional high grounds. Her first leadership book, Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, was written as a practical guide to crafting a career leaders can believe in and achieve.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Spelman College in Atlanta, and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., and The Executive Leadership Council. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband John, five of their six children ages nine to eighteen, and their dog.