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Bias, Not Behavior Determines Women’s Fate in the Workplace According to New Data From Harvard

Even as we acknowledge how terrible sexism is, the onus of halting its effects is often placed on women. We frame sexual assault in terms of women “not getting raped” as opposed to telling men not to rape. We frame domestic responsibilities in terms of women “having it all” as opposed to men “sharing some.” In the workplace, women have been advised to “lean in,” but all the leaning in in the world doesn’t rid the workplace of the one thing that truly stops women’s careers in their tracks: bias.

The Harvard Business Review recently did a study to acquire hard data on the way men and women are treated in the workplace in order to address the question of why women consistently hit a wall with regard to promotion as well as “whether gender differences in behavior drive gender differences in outcomes.” As the report on the study says, “Most programs created to combat gender inequality are based on anecdotal evidence or cursory surveys.” What they were looking for this time were hard numbers and measurable metrics.

The researchers, Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, and Ben Waber, focused their efforts on an unnamed large multinational business strategy firm, where women women made up roughly 35%–40% of the incoming entry-level workforce, but they were a smaller percentage the higher up the ladder you go, eventually making up only 20% of people at the second highest level at this organization. The report doesn’t mention the top level at all, presumably because there are no women at that level.

They describe their methodology, and the technology they incorporated into the study:

“We collected email communication and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees in one office, across all five levels of seniority, over the course of four months. We then gave 100 of these individuals sociometric badges, which allowed us to track in-person behavior. These badges, which look like large ID badges and are worn by all employees, record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges, and speech (volume and tone of voice but not content). They can tell us who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.

“We collected this data, anonymized it, and analyzed it. Although we were not able to see the identity of individuals, we still had data on gender, position, and tenure at the office, so we could control for these factors. To retain privacy, we did not collect the content of any communications, only the metadata (that is, who communicated with whom, at what time, and for how long).”

They went in with a lot of the same preconceived notions that many of us probably would: that yes, sexist biases exist, but women’s progress is likely also held up by their internalized sexism, too, right? The way they don’t negotiate for higher salaries the way men do, or socialize the way men do, or assert themselves the way men do, or…do anything the way men do.

What the study found, however, is that there was no difference in behavior. Women had plenty of access to decision makers and took their opportunities to network and socialize the way men do. They also allocate their work time the same ways, and “in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores.”

HBR defines ‘bias’ as what happens “when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently.” That’s exactly what this study seems to demonstrate. That it makes no difference whether a woman “plays by the rules” or not, because it’s not a matter of what she’s doing, but rather, of how she’s perceived. The researchers cite the example of parenthood when it comes to bias and why women :

“If men and women are equal stakeholders in a family, they should presumably be leaving the workforce at the same rate. But this isn’t happening. According to McKinsey and’s 2017 gender report, women with a partner are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the housework. However, women are not advancing, while men are. Previous research has also shown that men are perceived as more responsible when they have children, while women are seen as being less committed to work.”

Men get raises when they’re about to become parents, because they “have a family to support.” Women are expected to leave, and so they do. And if they choose to stay in their job, they’re looked at differently. They’re seen as selfish.

In light of their findings, HBR suggests that companies should focus their parity efforts on taking concrete actions that work against bias. Some of their suggestions include:

  • Making equal hiring a company mandate: “Significant research suggests that mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better decisions…thinking about candidates in groups helped managers compare individuals by performance — but when managers evaluated candidates individually they fell back on gendered heuristics.”
  • Support ALL working parents: Obviously, the higher you go on the corporate ladder, the more responsibility you take on. While that isn’t inherently gendered, “many social pressures push women around this age to simultaneously balance work, family, and a disproportionate amount of housework. Companies may consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a “family or work” decision.”
  • Hard data is the key to a solution: Hard numbers will allow companies to better tailor solutions to their specific company culture and needs. That data needs to answer “fundamental questions such as “When are women dropping out?” and “Are women acting differently than men in the office?” and “What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?” When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office.”

The same could be said for so many areas of women’s lives. No matter what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, however we act or don’t act, dress or don’t dress, we are all of us vulnerable to the same gendered bias. So perhaps it’s time we stop asking what women should be doing to stop being discriminated against and instead ask what men are going to do to stop being discriminatory.

(image: Shutterstock)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.