The nature of discrimination today is dramatically different from the pernicious, overt discrimination that existed decades ago, which gave rise to the introduction of equal opportunity and affirmative action legislation back in the 1980s.
These days, thanks to a large body of social science research, and more recently the study of neuroscience, we are more aware of how unconscious biases affect judgement and behaviour and entrench stereotypes in the workplace.
The filter effect
Unconscious bias is a natural human response to the overwhelming amount of information our brains must cope with. From a biological perspective, our brain acts as a filtering mechanism. As it is impossible to process every bit of information bombarding us at every moment, our brain relies on taking cognitive shortcuts.
That is, we make sense of the world by filtering out non-essential information and taking shortcuts in our thinking. When this thinking is about people or individuals our shortcuts often result in stereotyping.
When we categorise someone as male or female, we perceive them through the filter of cultural beliefs and norms. This is usually unconscious and unintended but it is prejudicial nonetheless. Perhaps this explains why women continue to be disadvantaged when applying for top management and executive jobs, often thought to require characteristics such as ambition, aggressiveness and emotional toughness, which are stereotypical male qualities.
Putting unconscious bias to the test
A meta-analysis of the employment prospects of fictitious job applicants shows that overall, men are rated more favourably than identically experienced women for “male” jobs. In one study (Steinprice et al, 2007, reported in Fine, C., 2010), more than 100 university psychologists were asked to rate the CVs of Dr Karen Miller or Dr Brian Miller, fictitious applicants for an academic tenure-track job. The CVs were identical, apart from the name.
Yet, strangely, the male Dr Miller was perceived (by both male and female reviewers) to have better research, teaching and service experience than the female Dr Miller. Overall, about three-quarters of the psychologists thought Dr Brian was hireable, while less than half had the same confidence in Dr Karen.
The stereotype threat and its effect
A stereotype threat is the threat of being judged or treated poorly in settings where a negative stereotype about your group applies. Identifying with a negative stereotype can lower performance expectations, trigger performance anxiety and increase other negative emotions (Cadinu et al, 2003).
Apart from disrupting our rational thought processes and confusing our focus, a stereotype threat can also stimulate a failure-prevention mindset. This means we focus on averting risk and preventing failure, rather than seeking success through being bold or creative. Extreme risk aversion is clearly detrimental to a rising career.
As women become increasingly outnumbered by men, they will progressively lose one very effective protection against stereotyping – safety in numbers, with other women as role models to aspire to. They lose their sense of belonging.
The way forward
So, can women truly succeed in male-dominated environments given the obstacles of stereotyping, unconscious bias, and their minority status at the top?
In 2010, Accenture surveyed more than 500 senior executives from medium to large companies around the world. This survey indicated that resilience was considered extremely important when considering which staff members to retain. More importantly for this discussion, these leaders viewed women as being slightly more resilient than men, indicating a likelihood of choosing or retaining a woman over a man if all other things were equal.
There are varied and complex factors at play when it comes to why women still struggle to make it to the top of organisations. Many women have impressive leadership skills. However, women still need to work harder than men to prove themselves if working in male-dominated domains of the business world.
Progress will be made when organisations move beyond merely ‘accommodating’ diversity in teams, to assimilating diverse thinking in everything they and their people do. This requires openness in leaders to continually confront their own biases, to pull the organisation’s assumptions apart and test them, and to actively seek out different views.
With pervasive stereotypes, unconscious bias and isolation at the top, the mindset a woman brings to a senior role is also one of the factors that will be critical to her success. Overcoming women’s own stereotypes and biases as well as those of her male counterparts will have to be part of the solution.