What’s the difference between being assertive and being aggressive? Your gender.
This joke tends to ring true, even in 2021, over a century since women’s suffrage and more than six decades since the modern feminist movement began. One would think the unconscious bias we all carry would be lessened by proof points and progress — women as effective world leaders, women in the corporate C-suite, women as primary wage earners. But the stereotypes around women persist, making the attributes that distinguish men in the workplace (assertive, decisive, strong) often perceived poorly when exhibited by women (aggressive, controlling, bossy).
A telling study was published in 2012. Over a hundred U.S. professors of biology, chemistry, and physics were asked to evaluate a fictitious resume of an applicant for a lab manager position. These scientists were more likely to offer the job (with 13% higher salary) to “John” than “Jennifer,” even when the resumes were identical but for the name at the top. “John” was universally perceived as more competent despite having precisely the same qualifications as “Jennifer.” (Both male and female evaluators yielded similar outcomes, and results were confirmed in a 2019 study that considered both gender and race.)
Or consider the 2020 Hubble Space Telescope dual-anonymization study. Each year, nearly 1,000 scientists submit applications to access the Hubble to run their experiments. Winners are selected by a peer review process purported to evaluate the merit of the proposed work. As of 2014, applications from male principal investigators (PIs) had an average success rate of 23% while applications from female PIs had a success rate of 18%. However, once all personally-identifying information was removed from the research applications, female PIs were selected at a higher rate than their male counterparts.
This phenomenon — in which the gender of an individual appears to influence the perception of their capability and/or the quality of their work — is not unique to the sciences. Let’s consider the effect blind auditions have had on the gender diversity in professional orchestras. Prior to 1970, women made up about 6% of the musicians in the top five U.S. orchestras. Once blind audition practices were instituted — including candidates playing from behind a screen while barefoot to prevent clomping heels from giving away their gender — the percentage of women surged to over 30%.
Here’s one more controlled study that really drove the point home for me. Test subjects were asked to evaluate two fictitious resumes, both candidates for the job of police chief. One resume had more education, the other had more experience. When pre-tested with no names associated, the candidates were evaluated as roughly equivalent. After a man’s name was put atop the resume with more experience and a woman’s name atop the one with more education, evaluators selected the man — because he had more experience. Then the names were swapped. This time evaluators selected the man — because he had more education.
Many people, it seems, apply different standards when assessing men versus women, even when the individuals are competing for the very same role. Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift captured this vexing reality in her 2019 song “The Man.” Swift is one of the best-selling music artists of all times, with over 200 million records sold, 11 Grammy Awards, and countless other accolades. Yet she has often been criticized for everything from her dating history to her song-writing ability to her ambition. In her song and compelling video, Swift explores how different her experiences might have been if she were a man: “They’d say I hustled, put in the work. They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve. What I was wearing, if I was rude. Could all be separated from my good ideas and power moves? … I’m so sick of running as fast as I can. Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.”
Most of us probably believe we are objective, that we evaluate others based exclusively on the quality of their work, without regard for gender (or race or disability or other identity attributes). Yet the data above (and in numerous other studies) suggests that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate implicit biases — subconscious perceptions that are largely unintended, ingrained, and long-standing. So, what should we do?
We have a problem
The first step, as they say, is to admit we have a problem. There’s plenty of well-meaning advice for women to “take a seat at the table,” apply for jobs even if they feel underqualified, and to “opt in” to leadership and advancement opportunities; of course, there are actions that women can take to “lean in” and self promote. But — we cannot put the onus for solving this long-standing issue solely on women, as their actions alone will do little against a backdrop of systemic bias and ingrained stereotypes. Remember this: the same behaviors seen as competent and authoritative in men are often viewed as arrogant and unsavory in women. So sometimes such actions backfire.
According to a 2017 PwC study, 30% of women globally feel employers are biased in favor of male candidates. This sentiment is especially strong in Switzerland (46%); Brazil, Ireland, and the U.S. (40%); and the U.K. (38%). In contrast, a much smaller percentage of women report bias in Malaysia (8%) and Hong Kong (9%). Both women and men identify gender stereotypes and assumptions in the recruitment process as the most significant barriers to increasing the level of female hires. A 2020 United Nations report found almost 90% of men and women hold some bias against women, and that there is no country in the world today with gender equity.
It’s tough to truly “check your biases at the door” as is often suggested in management training and business articles. If we don’t even recognize our stereotypes and implicit biases, how can we commit to “a zero-tolerance policy for gender discrimination”? Studies have repeatedly shown that stereotypes are filters through which we evaluate others. While we think we are being objective and making an accurate assessment based on merit alone, unconscious bias is a mental shortcut that often unknowingly skews the results.
We can’t simply say we care about diversity, keep measuring our diversity stats, and expect to see a step function in hiring, retention, and advancement of women and underrepresented minorities. As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We must recognize our deficiencies and take explicit actions to address them.
Processes and practices
We need to leverage deliberate processes and practices to assist in fair and unbiased assessments. The success of the blinded Hubble evaluations and orchestra auditions provides compelling evidence of the value of anonymization. Anonymizing applications and shifting to “gender blind” processes minimize the gender gap. Companies like Deloitte and Ernst & Young have successfully employed blind hiring to increase diversity. Techniques include redacting personal information from resumes, creating common resume formats, and screening candidates based on consistent and objective hiring criteria.
Requiring diverse slates for all open positions is another best practice that improves workforce diversity. This challenges our natural inclination to consider candidates that think, look, or act just like us. Diverse slates force hiring managers to identify candidates outside their typical networks. The National Football League (NFL) adopted the Rooney Rule in 2002, requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach vacancy. The result? An increase in the percentage of Black head coaches from 6% to 22% in only four years. Other best practices include diverse interview panels, inclusive language in job descriptions, unconscious bias training, and gender diversity recruitment targets.
Technology innovation can also help address these challenges. The Silicon Valley startup GapJumpers champions large-scale blind hiring, advancing objective decision-making. They created an online technology platform that allows hiring managers to hold blind “auditions” (mini assignments to evaluate skills relevant for the open position), which has resulted in 60% of identified top talent from underrepresented background.
Artificial intelligence (AI) holds promise for systematizing the talent selection process and reducing the impact of human bias. Care must be taken in the design and deployment of AI solutions since AI also has the potential to exacerbate problems, carrying forward human biases that exist in the data used to train the AI systems. There are dozens of AI-driven tools in the market today designed to optimize the talent acquisition process — from sourcing to screening to assessment. IBM uses its Watson AI solutions to enhance engagement with candidates via real-time chatbots, to help recruiters rank candidate suitability, and to guide compensation decisions.
Role models, advocates, and sponsors
Many of us have observed or experienced gender-based workplace practices. For instance, it’s common for a woman to be asked to take notes during a meeting; this has happened to me on many occasions. Was it because I am a woman, or just because I’m pretty good at summarizing discussions? I’ve chosen to believe it was the latter. It’s common for a woman to be introduced by her first name in the same breath as a male gets referred to by the “Doctor” or “Professor” honorific; this has happened to me, and I looked the other way. It’s common for a woman to be called “sweetie” or “honey” or “kiddo” in professional settings (when male colleagues get no such labels); this has happened to me, and I let it slide.
Looking back now, though, I wish I had called out these minor incidents. Perhaps I could have said, “Today’s it’s Gary’s turn to take notes.” Or I might have spoken up, “Like Dr. Jones, I also have a Ph.D.” Or maybe I should have shared feedback: “I’d prefer if you didn’t call me kiddo, and I suspect it makes others uncomfortable too.” Possibly I would have been perceived as overly sensitive or even aggressive. But just maybe I could have been a small catalyst for change.
Because we all have a role to play in creating an environment where both women and men have opportunities to do their best work and contribute in meaningful ways. Leaders serve as role models, paving the way for others. We must be upstanders not bystanders — calling out bias and advocating for change whenever necessary. We need to be proactive in sponsoring others — investing in their success. We should be allies — giving everyone a fair chance at a fulfilling and impactful career.
When I require hiring managers to build a diverse slate of candidates even when the presumed front-runner is a highly-qualified individual, I’m sure I come across as bossy. But I also know that I now have the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure we are taking meaningful steps to improve the diversity and the overall effectiveness of our team.