The roots of workplace gender bias
| Posted in: Workplace
I may wear a tight-fitting Superman outfit to work each day, but that doesn’t make me the Man of Steel. (It does, however, make me a frequent visitor to the human resources department — something about “inappropriate work attire.”)
The point is, I’m human, and so are all of you. We may lose track of that fact in the buzz of a busy workday, but our humanness is a constant, and that humanness comes with flaws. We make mistakes. We say things we shouldn’t. And as much as we try to deny it, we carry with us certain biases.
It’s through this lens that I’d like to examine gender bias in the workplace. It’s a thorny issue, in large part because none of us, male or female, likes to admit to being anything but egalitarian.
The subject of gender equity is often discussed solely from the standpoint of equal pay, and that sets off a furor between those who cite estimates on how much less women earn than men and those who claim those estimates don’t account for a wide array of other factors and blah blah blah. Let’s set pay aside for now and zoom the microscope in on the underlying, often unconscious, biases men develop outside work and bring with them to the office.
In a recent article published in Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York University and the University of Utah examined how marriage structure impacts men’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors toward women in the workplace.
By conducting five different studies, approaching the issue from different angles, the authors found that men married to women who are not employed tend to: “(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) perceive organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotions more frequently than do other married male employees.”
Sreedhari Desai, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said the results surprised her.
“I had seen gender discrimination and certain attitudes growing up in India, but I honestly didn’t expect to find that here in the U.S.,” Desai said. “I always thought of the U.S. as a place that is progressive and where women are treated the same as men. I had to recheck the numbers at first and say, ‘Oh, wow, this really does exist.'”
The implication of this study is not that men whose wives don’t work are ogres. Not in the least.
“I think often these kind of biases lurk in a nonconscious way,” Desai said. “People might not be aware that they are at play. I think most of these men are very nice fathers and husbands and they just aren’t aware of the attitudes that they have about men being leaders and providers.”
Most humans’ initial reaction to a charge like this is: “I DO NOT!!” But it’s folly, I believe, for any of us to think we’re incapable of harboring biases, be they based on race, gender, sexuality or anything else.
Based on my life experiences, I might think guys who wear baseball hats backward are dumb jocks. So if I see a co-worker wearing a baseball hat backward on casual Friday, might I unconsciously think less of that person? It’s certainly possible.
The researchers used different study methods and different samples and found a consistent pattern of results, lending credence to their findings.
I asked Desai to provide a percentage breakdown of responses when married men were asked whether men alone should be responsible for providing household income:
- 29 percent of men in marriages where both spouses work full time said yes;
- 37.3 percent of men in marriages where the wife is working part time said yes;
- 57.1 percent of men in marriages where the wife does not work said yes.
It’s not hard to see how the belief that men should be the breadwinners might impact how a male boss or manager hires or promotes women.
“The policies are set for the most part by those at the top,” Desai said. “So first of all, executives tend to be male, predominantly, and of these a large percentage have stay-at-home wives.”
So let’s say you’re a working human of the male variety. Regardless of whether your spouse works or stays at home, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to:
- Acknowledge that no matter how pro-equality and fair you think you are, your subconscious is capable of skewing the way you view female colleagues.
- Pause to make sure the decisions you’re making — if they impact a female co-worker — aren’t unfairly influenced by your own life experiences.
The study recommends that companies “establish responsibility for diversity,” something most companies have done to one degree or another. That includes creating diversity committees or task forces, being accountable for diversity goals and promoting “an awareness of where subtle prejudices and negative stereotypes may lie.”
But I prefer to see individuals being aware of their own potential flaws.
Desai said: “Any time you’re on a recruiting committee and you have to decide who the incumbent should be, it would be helpful to say, ‘Am I leaning a certain way because of gender issues? Am I giving proper attention to all sides? Am I making assumptions about the female candidate thinking maybe she’d prefer a less demanding job?’ Just trying to ask yourself these things would be helpful.”
In the pursuit of true gender equity, this is an easy and reasonable step all men can take. None of us, after all, is Superman. We are human, flaws and all.
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