Three common biases women encounter at work

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad.  The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says:   “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” How is this possible?

If you haven’t figured out that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, then I made my point: unconscious bias is everywhere – whether you’re a man or a woman!  But don’t kick yourself for it – you’re hardly alone.

As we’re approaching IWD, I want to share some of the most common biases women encounter at work.  Let me know if any of these sound familiar:

  1. All she needs is more confidence.

Call it confidence, call it Gravitas, or any other strong, extroverted, Presence-based characteristic.  The lack of these attributes often stop women from progressing.    The more heavily-influenced a company (or part of it) is by male presence, the more likely it is for women to be considered less capable if they don’t command a room or a meeting.

This is of course a fallacy.  In many cases, women appear less confident only in scenarios when they are the minority, i.e. in male-dominated groups.  We all feel a level of discomfort (even if we rarely acknowledge it) operating in an environment that is less familiar.  Many men admit to this feeling when they enter a room full of women – or find themselves at the school gate with a group of mums.  All of a sudden, our confidence appears to ebb.

But competence doesn’t.  A competent person remains competent in both scenarios, even if it may not seem that way.  In fact, rarely are competence and confidence correlated.  And if we believe this, then why do we pay so much attention to a person’s confidence?

In other words, she doesn’t need more confidence; she needs more acceptance and appreciation of her competence.

  1. We always hire the best candidate, regardless of background

If only that were the case!  We want to believe that’s what we do but the data shows otherwise.  It shows that we’re slaves to our unconscious affinity – or ingroup – bias.

We may not be aware of it, but a person who is more like us will come across more capable, credible, trustworthy and likeable than a person who isn’t.  We actively solicit, pay attention to and favour the contributions of ‘ingroup’ members.  This also means that we are much more likely to overlook, overhear or disregard the strengths of a person who is different from us.

When that happens, we also do this: we justify to ourselves why the person we really like is also more capable, and therefore, the better candidate.

Yes, we all do this.

Truth be told, there is no such thing as true meritocracy.  All our decisions have a strong influence of bias – in this example, affinity  (or ingroup) bias.

So next time you prefer one candidate to another, and that preferred candidate happens to be more like you than the other, put your preference to the test:  scrutinise it like someone who is advocating for greater diversity.  Is the ingroup candidate really the better candidate or might your view be influenced by something other than objective criteria?

  1. ‘Great work, Rachel!’   ‘Thanks, but I’m Susan.’

It is both astonishing and embarrassing to reflect on the number of times women have told me how their names are mixed up with other women.

Think about it:  there are 2 women in a meeting of 8 and the men struggle to keep them apart.  What does it say about the value they assign to these women?  How much regard do they hold for them?  If they cannot remember who  is who, how likely are these women to be taken seriously?

Of course, this isn’t a malicious thing.  We know that.  But, gentlemen, next time you confuse two women, think about what this means and how you think of them at work.  Think also about the last time you confused two men who are like you.  Surprised you can’t think of an incident like that?

Ladies, if this happens to you, I encourage you to (politely) correct the situation.  That ought to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As we go into a day/week/month of celebrating the many wonderful women around us, let’s remember these commonly-perpetrated microaggressions, let’s identify them, talk about them, and find ways to challenge them.  We do this not only to respect our fellow female colleagues, but to improve everyone’s wellbeing and performance at work.  And isn’t that a worthwhile endeavour? #ChooseToChallenge

If you liked this post, you might also like In the Wake of IWD – What are we really saying?

Merit is Biased

wooden cartHow many times have you heard women say that they don’t want to be promoted based on “targets” or “quotas” because that undermines their meritorious credentials as a candidate? Well, guess what:  merit-based processes are in fact biased in favour of men!  Despite the fact that we try to level the playing field in the work place by introducing processes to make promotions and other work-related decisions more objective, they can, in fact, have the reverse effect by activating more gender bias.

I’ll explain.

Given that a merit-based system prefers candidates with more “merit” for the job, there is a latent layer of discrimination embedded in this system.  Merit-based systems are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women – a preconceived notion that is unlikely to be true.

The assumption is based on (1) the belief that men and women have the same attributes and are therefore starting from the same base line – not the case, and (2) the assessment criteria that is set to judge a person on merit applies equally to men and women – again, not the case.    After all, if these assumptions are true, and considering the high levels of achievement by women at universities and professional schools, why are women still underrepresented at senior levels of organisations?

Research from the US suggest that focusing on merit leads to biased outcomes.  This research was prompted by the observation that, despite having introduced performance pay and merit-based reward practices (with the aim of making advancement and remuneration opportunities more objective), companies continued to experience the same levels of inequality in personnel-related decisions as before the introduction of these measures.  The research found that in situations where merit was emphasised as a basis for selection and performance appraisal decisions, men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases, compared to equally rated women.

What we can glean from this study is that, although organisations strive to make unbiased decisions, meritorious processes do not appear to have successfully stripped out gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

If merit is to be interpreted as “competence” or “capability” specific to the requirements of a particular role, and if we also agree (on the basis of research and evidence) that women are perceived as interpersonally warmer and less competent than men, and men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent than women, then we might start to understand how meritocracy might work against equality and impartiality.   When a person is asked to make a merit-based decision, these sub-conscious perceptions (warm vs competent) are activated and men and women are perceived to differ in their degree of competence or capability by the decision maker. Once activated, the stereotype unconsciously influences the decision in favour of men based on performance criteria that are packed with competence-related characteristics.

There is a study that backed up this thinking and found a way to overcome this unconscious process:  A research conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra involving blind auditions.  Based on audible auditions only, the percentage of women represented in the concert body went from 10% to 45% of new hires.

This orchestral example is extremely enlightening. Selectors had long insisted that the lack of women musicians in the orchestra was not based on discrimination but on the fact that the preferred playing style was more predominant among male musicians. Blind auditions have refuted this line of argument quite clearly.  Hopefully, it is now clear that the different playing styles argument was based on a gender stereotype, a stereotype that was “turned off” through the simple process of not being able to see the musician.  In other words, if we discount gender as part of the equation, women appear to have just as much “merit” as men.

It would be great if we could try this “blind audition” approach in organisations, but, unfortunately, this might be an unrealistic and impractical aim.  What we can take away from this, however, is that people – men and women alike – are overestimating the egalitarian nature of merit-based systems and do women a disservice by discounting other equalising systems – like targets, for example – on the basis of merit.  We should all keep in mind that a focus on merit does not protect decision-makers from bias and may even make them more susceptible to it.  Otherwise, we will simply continue to proliferate the status quo.

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