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Unconscious Bias to Gender and the Glass Ceiling

Unconscious Bias to Gender and the Glass Ceiling

Whilst a considerable amount of progress has been made in the area of gender equality, both in and outside the workplace, we still do not have true gender equality. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) strongly believes that conditions for women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles, providing women with a strong and powerful voice. Many are trying to understand why the ‘gender glass ceiling’ continues to exist in their organisations. Part of this relates to unconscious bias, the mental models we have about gender and how they can inadvertently affect our behaviours. These unconscious biases exist in both men and women. Sandberg admits that she also is impacted by gender unconscious bias and gives an example of when she gave a talk about ‘Leaning In”, about how women can assert themselves - At the end of her talk when she said there was no more time for questions, the women put their hands down, but some men continued to raise their hands and ask questions, which she then answered.

Sandberg examines why women’s progress in leadership has stalled, laying out the complex challenges they face, and the adjustments and/or differences that can be made to solve this. Sandberg argues that a main factor responsible for this trend is due to the impact of how girls, stereotypically, are raised in comparison to boys. Taking risks, advocating for oneself, prioritising marriage over career, and being scolded for breaking the rules, are all translated into women’s professional careers and development. The result of this is that while women are just as ambitious as men, fewer women aspire to the most senior jobs and, societally, ambition can be viewed as optional or negative for women. An example of this unconscious bias was demonstrated in the Heidi/Howard study where two groups of Harvard students were given the case study of real-life entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. However, the fundamental difference was that for one group Heidi’s name was changed to Howard. The students then rated both Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense, but Howard came across as more appealing and Heidi was seen as selfish and not ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for’, showing that gender, despite the same accomplishments, created vastly different impressions. Additionally, our childhood gender stereotypes are reinforced through most leadership positions being held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and, therefore, becomes a reason they don’t. Sandberg believes the same is true with pay.

Taking risks, choosing growth, challenging oneself, and asking for promotions are all important elements of managing a career, and aspects which women need to learn to embrace. When it comes to the stage that a woman begins a family or a break from work is needed, Sandberg argues then and only then, should she start to scale back on her work. She sees too many women, in the months and years leading up to having children slowly scaling back on their work, not progressing in their careers, and passing over opportunities. She sees that this is not the time for women to ‘lean back’, but it is the critical time for women to ‘lean in’.

“What about men who want to leave the workforce? If we make it too easy for women to drop out of the career marathon, we also make it too hard for men”

However, the good news is that not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive while doing so. Sandberg argues that just as women need to be more empowered at work, men must be allowed to be more empowered at home and encourage to be more ambitious in their family life. She sees that women inadvertently discourage their partners from doing their share at home by either being too controlling and/or critical. By allowing men to take responsibility as well, figuring out things in their own way, then she sees that true partnership is created. Sandberg believes that women need to learn that it is impossible to control all the variables when it comes to parenting, and that the phrase ‘having it all’ is a complete myth. She sees that being a parent means making adjustment, compromises, and sacrifices every day. If you don’t believe this is true, she says, it is simple a recipe for disappointment and/or disaster.

Bringing up gender bias in the workplace is a tricky task, with fears it will project an image of unprofessionalism or blaming. However, pretending biases do not exist and shutting down discussion is self-defeating and progress is impeded. We recently heard of a FTSE100 company who are proactively gaining insights from coaching high-performing female leaders, to understand the factors contributing to the ‘glass ceiling’. The company is fully committed to take this feedback and proactively change the organisational culture to promote gender equality. Once we understand and acknowledge stereotypes and biases exist and change our corporate cultures, we can break out from the inequality in leadership roles and there will be leaders undifferentiated by gender.

  • By Aoife Morris
  • 9 Dec 2016
  • Unconscious Bias, Gender, The Glass Ceiling

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