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Unconscious Gender Bias – Experience of Both Genders

Category: Pro-Opinion, gender, WORKPLACE, experience, gender bias

Unconscious Gender Bias – Experience of Both Genders

A study by the Cook Ross Consultancy in the US in 2008, revealed that while less than 15% of American men are over 6ft tall (1.8m), almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over 6ft tall.  Furthermore, less than 4% of American men yet 36% of corporate CEOs are over 6ft2in tall.  Why does this happen?  Clearly corporate Boards do not conduct their CEO search strategies and specify that they must find a tall guy............or maybe they do!!

Is it that unconsciously, recruiters equate leadership with strength, power, dominance and visibility, and that tall men fulfill those criteria as primary attributes?  These may have been leadership qualities for the military historically, but modern business leadership requires a whole different set of attributes.

The effect of this bias though clearly excludes candidates, male and female, who would perform the role perfectly well and perhaps even better because they don’t rely on physical prowess to influence others.  The only way to counter this apparent bias is for the employer to specifically instruct the recruiter that height and a dominant physical presence are not key requirements for the role, although one wouldn't think that should be necessary.

When we consider gender bias, people who go through gender transition uniquely experience and recognise gender bias from two different perspectives.  Prior to transition, we experience workplace interaction from both men and women in ways that are entirely different to how we experience it post-transition – we are the same person, different gender.

Recently a friend of mine who had completed her gender transition and is the senior partner in an accounting firm said that often when she attends initial meetings with prospective clients, she gets frustrated when they address their questions to her (male) junior colleague.  She has to politely request that they maintain the dialogue with her as she is the senior partner and makes the decisions.  This never happened to her before her gender transition, i.e. when male.

Everyone I know who goes through gender transition experiences similar dramatic changes in treatment.  Sheryl Sandberg, in a Women in Leadership webinar, recently commented on the case of Ben Barres, a biologist at Stanford University in California, who had worked as Barbara Barres until his forties when he transitioned to male.  During most of his career, he experienced gender bias that included comments like “You must have had your boyfriend solve that” when he (as Barbara) had solved a particularly difficult maths problem.

When he became Ben, he noticed big changes particularly with people who didn’t know he had transitioned.  At meetings, he was more carefully listened to, his authority less frequently questioned and he stopped being interrupted.  The best reaction came from a scientist at a conference that Ben was presenting at.  He said “Ben gave a great seminar – his work is so much better than his sister’s.  This is why women are not breaking into top academic jobs”.  The scientist was not aware that Ben and Barbara was the same person!!!

Ben had transitioned female to male, but the same experiences are mirrored when one transitions male to female.  Ben’s story was related in a recent article in New Republic by Jessica Nordell in which she also related the experience of Joan Roughgarden, also at Stanford, who lived as Jonathan until her early fifties. Joan commented in an interview that “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise”.  She said that when she questioned a mathematical idea, people assumed it was because she didn't understand it, rather than was challenging its integrity out of intellectual enquiry, which had been the case when male.

I have experienced the same noticeable changes in the way in which people listen to me in business situations where I find I have to provide more detail to justify my knowledge of a subject, where before my transition, my knowledge was taken at face value.   In some ways, it is a subtle difference but one which is quite stark to us as we experience a different reaction through the same eyes, ears and mind.

The Origin and Source of Bias

Our unconscious mind absorbs a huge amount of data and stores it in a way that influences our beliefs and values.  Only a small fraction of the data that we are exposed to at any one time is functionally processed by our conscious mind.  Over time, we develop perceptual filters and lenses that allow certain things to enter our consciousness and keep other things out, although they still enter our unconscious mind.  These filters depend on the perceptions, interpretations, preferences and biases that we have adopted throughout our life.

A basic aspect of unconscious bias is that every human being has bias of one kind or another.  No one is immune, and we may also hold reverse bias where we assume a bias works against us for say, our gender or age, and this can alter our own behavior and inhibit our own actions unnecessarily.  Bias is also more deeply ingrained and harder to mitigate when people convince themselves that they are not biased in a certain aspect and so unconsciously create strategies to substantiate their convictions to that belief.  This is also known as ‘confirmation bias’.

Research carried out in 2004 by MIT and the University of Chicago of employers who aggressively sought diversity, revealed that quite the opposite was occurring in their recruitment choices.  Distributing 5,000 identical CVs, roughly half with typically white names and half with typically black names, to 1,250 employers who were advertising employment opportunities, CVs with ‘typically white’ names received 50% more follow-ups than CVs with ‘typically black’ names.

Research by The Clear Company in 2011 identified that 89.5% of recruiters responded that they already offered support to disabled candidates, yet only 13.8% of candidates felt they received it.  Clearly recruiters’ perceptions of how well they are doing in that strand of diversity recruitment is very different from the reality, and there is every reason to believe that a similar picture would emerge in the other strands of diversity.  Among transgender people who complete gender transition, 49% experience repeated discrimination in recruitment post-transition.  Despite numerous initiatives to address gender bias and recruit more women into senior management, progress has been patchy and continues to fall well short of targets.

More To Do

The limiting patterns of unconscious bias are not restricted to any one group.  Diversity professionals in employers and recruiters particularly have to focus on their own assumptions and biases if they are to claim the moral authority to guide others in acknowledging and confronting theirs.

The danger from self-belief that one is taking positive action on diversity is that hidden biases will pervade unless challenged by parties who feel they are subject to negative bias.  Diversity and inclusion seminars are often attended by HR practitioners who make recruitment decisions, and yet exclude the people who are diverse – candidates and employees - and who may challenge those biases, improve awareness and help to mitigate them.

According to a recent Grant Thornton report, the UK has made relatively little progress in improving the proportion of senior management positions held by women, going from 18% to 22% in the last 10 years.  This compares to 26% for Europe as a whole although wide variations from country to country persist with Russia and Eastern Europe reporting proportions over 30%, with Germany falling back to 14% and now setting quota targets.  Japan has the lowest representation at 8%.  Local ethnic, social and business culture plays a very big part and despite the establishment of initiatives to involve men such as the ‘Male Champions of Change’ (MCC) in Australia and ‘Men Advocating Real Change’ (MARC) in the US, they have had minimal impact on the national business cultures.

Figures just released indicate that women now account for 23.5% of the boards of FTSE 100 companies, and 18% on FTSE 250 boards.  This is encouraging and must be taken at face value, but the greater visibility and accountability of the largest companies provides a strong incentive and much more needs to be done in the wider business environment.

The problem however is not merely at board appointment level, but in the pipeline providing suitable candidates.  For example, it is widely acknowledged that international assignments enhance one’s credentials and career prospects in a variety of ways, and yet on average just 16% of overseas postings in major corporations are given to women.  The perception that women cannot be sent overseas because they might interrupt their career and return home to have a family, in a way that assumes women have families and men do not, is biased and counterproductive.  Expatriate programmes are well structured to cater for families moving overseas and yet most often assume that the job role is performed by a man with a woman following her husband and establishing a domestic environment.

There are of course some countries where gender relations are culturally very different from what we experience at home, and female expatriate postings could be problematic, but in most territories women would be very successful and should certainly be given more opportunities than the 16% currently implies.  My own experience of appointing women to my financial teams in Asia and the Middle East, whether locals or expatriates, was that they were much more culturally aware and sensitive than their male counterparts and succeeded very well as a result.

The small proportion of female appointees on international assignments is illogical to me and contributes to the lack of suitable female candidates in the pipeline when it comes to more senior appointments in multinational corporations.  Along with the fact that parenthood and family care require women to make more sacrifices which are taken by many employers as a negative on their career prospects, then the pipeline of available female talent for corporate boards is reduced.  Equal opportunities need to exist throughout all levels in the organisation in order to feed through to the top.

The Grant Thornton report also highlighted that women who do achieve senior leadership positions are more likely to have worked their way up from lower levels in the same organisation, and are less likely to have achieved the senior role through direct recruitment at that level.  Despite the Voluntary Code of Conduct for executive search firms, and a sense amongst firms that they are driving change with their clients, I suspect that the 13.8% / 89.5% disparity between reality and perception for disabled candidates mentioned above would be similarly replicated for women seeking senior leadership positions.

Finally, while there is much talk around mentoring programmes to help women ‘break through the glass ceiling’, my own perspective from both sides of the gender divide is that there is at least an equal need for men, standing on the ‘glass floor’, to receive mentoring and coaching in how to tackle gender bias, have the uncomfortable insightful conversations, engage with cultural change and obtain a gender balance level that more closely reflects the wider society and optimises business performance.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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