Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias 3

programmerBy Ramit Mizrahi

Women: “Lean in.” “Be more confident.” “Ask for a raise, but do it in a way that is ‘feminine’ so you don’t come off as demanding or unlikeable.”

We’ve had a surge of self-help articles and books telling women how to navigate a biased system. But, fifty years after sex discrimination was first made illegal, shouldn’t the focus be on how to stop the bias in the first place?

In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss how implicit biases harm women in the workplace and then cover some of the steps we can take to reduce bias.

Identifying the Problem

Many male managers believe that the glass ceiling has been shattered. This opinion, however, is not shared by their female counterparts, who know from experience that sex discrimination is alive and well in the workplace. While overt discrimination has been on the decline for the past half-century, subtle forms of discrimination are still pervasive. This is especially true in high-level jobs where criteria for advancement are more subjective. Even well-meaning executives make judgments and take actions that reflect stereotypes and implicit attitudes that disadvantage female candidates for promotion.

In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of research about what has come to be called cognitive or implicit bias. It all begins with the research proving that even the best-intentioned people harbor biases. This is true of men and woman of all ages and races; no one is immune. It’s not that we set out to judge women or minorities more harshly or treat them less favorably. What happens instead is that our internalized stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people end up influencing our judgments and evaluations without us realizing it.

As psychologist Virginia Valian has explained in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women,

“A woman does not walk into the room with the same status as an equivalent man, because she is less likely than a man to be viewed as a serious professional.”

People hold gendered expectations, and women who don’t meet them are viewed as less capable. For example, if asked to visualize a computer programmer, for example, one will likely think of a man (probably “geeky” and younger); someone who doesn’t fit that image will then be at a disadvantage as people wonder if she’s “as good.”

When a man succeeds, his success is seen as confirmation of his innate ability, whereas a woman’s success is often attributed to luck or simplicity of the task. When she fails, however, her failure is seen as reflection of her (lack of) ability.

It gets even more complicated when assessing leadership, particularly in jobs that are perceived as masculine. Male leaders may be judged better than female leaders who are equally effective, but who lead with a less aggressive style. Attitudes about proper gender roles positively affect performance evaluations for leaders who conform to gender norms, and negatively affect performance evaluations of women who are engaged in nontraditional employment.

Gender norms can produce a double-bind effect. In some work environments women must speak more (or louder) than men if they want to get their ideas noticed, but when they do, they are derided as pushy. In problem-solving situations social scientists have observed that women get more negative facial expressions from both male and female peers, and are perceived less positively than men, even when they follow the same script as males.

Even “neutral” evaluators can be affected. When observing a woman struggling to be heard by others, receiving negative facial expressions, and having her points ignored, outside evaluators may attribute the reaction of peers to the woman’s lesser ability, or to her bossiness, rather than to gender bias. Professor Valian describes how people who would never endorse overt “statements such as, ‘Women do not command respect from their subordinates,’ may nevertheless feel comfortable saying, ‘Lee does not command respect from her subordinates.’ The latter comment is just a ‘fact’ about Lee, arrived at through impartial and fair observation.”

While each such instance on its own may be considered inconsequential, over the course of a woman’s career, they combine to undermine career success.

Subtle biases can lead to huge differences in how people are treated based on their perceived sex. In a 2012 study, Yale-based researchers sought to explore differences in how science faculty from large research universities rate applications for a lab manager position based on the perceived sex of the applicant. They sent 127 volunteer professors from six research institutions the application of an undergraduate science student who had applied for a lab manager position. Each of the professors received the same materials, except that some were randomly assigned the name of a female student while others were assigned a male name. They were asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, as well as the amount of salary and mentoring they would offer the student.

The results were startling:

  • — The female student was deemed less competent (on a 5-point scale as with the other measures in this study, rated 3.33 by male faculty and 3.32 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.01 and 4.1).
  • — The female student was deemed less hirable (rated 2.96 by male faculty and 2.84 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 3.74 and 3.92).
  • — The female student was offered a mean starting salary of $26,507.94 as compared to $30,238.10 offered to the male student.
  • — The female student was offered less mentoring (a rating of 4.0 by male faculty and 3.91 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.74 and 4.73).
  • — The female student was evaluated as being more likeable, but that did not translate into positive perceptions of her competence of benefits in terms of a job offer, a higher salary, or more mentoring.

These results were consistent across gender, age, scientific discipline, and tenure status. The researchers concluded that faculty gender bias, unconscious and unintended, impedes women’s full participation in science.

Similar effects were observed in another study that focused on race. In a study targeting the legal profession, researchers enlisted five law partners to draft a memo on trade secret issues that would be presented as if written by a third-year litigation associate. They deliberately inserted 22 errors (including spelling, grammar, technical writing, factual, and analytical errors). Sixty law firm partners of different backgrounds were recruited to participate in a “writing analysis study,” and asked to review the legal memo written by “Thomas Meyer.” Half were told that the author was a white associate and half were told he was black.

Stark differences resulted in the assessments:

  • — On average, partners found 2.9 of the 7 spelling grammar in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 5.8 of the errors in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 4.1 of the 6 technical writing errors in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 4.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 3.2 of the 5 errors in facts in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 3.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners provided 11 edits or comments on formatting for white Thomas while making 29 for African-American Thomas.
  • — Partners described white Thomas as someone who “has potential” with “good analytical skills” and a “generally good writer but needs to work on. . . .”
  • — They described African-American Thomas as follows: “needs lots of work,” “can’t believe he went to NYU,” and “average at best.”
  • — These biases were found across the spectrum of sex, race, and other traits.

The authors’ analysis is on point:

“When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found. When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias, they are probably right in believing that there is no bias in the assessment of the errors found; however, if there is bias in the finding of the errors, even a fair final analysis cannot, and will not, result in a fair result.”

So what do we do? First, we must stop pretending to be sex blind, color blind, or blind to any other differences. Despite our best intentions, we are not. In fact, research has shown that people who most value fairness and objectivity are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against them.

This is not an easy task.  Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we can all agree that intentionally discriminating against someone because of her sex or race is an act that is morally reprehensible as well as illegal. But can we equally embrace the lesson learned from years of social science research into implicit bias – that we all harbor biases? Unless and until individuals and organizations are willing to grapple with this uncomfortable truth, we will be unable to dismantle these hidden barriers head on.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

3 thoughts on “Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias

  1. Reply Sam Rudolph Apr 23,2014 2:49 pm

    Civil Rights laws are a necessary first step. Where would be today without these? But after 50 years, we should know by now that civil rights laws won’t alone do the job — especially the task of curbing what we call cognitive or implicit bias. If this is an ingrained cultural bias, then we’ll need more time — and much more than civil rights laws alone — to make a real dent in this kind of discrimination.

  2. Reply Marjorie Wallace Apr 23,2014 3:08 pm

    Great article–looking forward to part 2.

    What struck me about the experiment with the faculty scientists was that consistently the female scientists rated the female applicant even lower than did their male colleagues!

    When I was the ONLY woman on a law faculty back in the stone age of the 20th century, I remember hearing female students say that since it was so hard to be hired as a woman law professor, I needed to be twice as good as my male colleagues. They said I was good, but not twice as good as the male professors, so they vowed to do everything they could to undermine me. So bizarre.

    Maybe some of that self-sabotaging psychology explains why the women scientists were even tougher on the female applicant. Or have they internalized the bias even more because it has affected them more than their male colleagues?

    Bottom line, I don’t care why this bias is happening. As your article highlights so well: employers need to take off their rosy glasses of denial, acknowledge the bias exists, the cost it incurs on women and traditional minorities, not to mention the talent waste to the employers and take steps to end it–i.e., follow the 3 As: Awareness, Acceptance and Action.

  3. Reply Ramit Mizrahi Apr 23,2014 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the comments! Next week’s post will delve into what organizations can do to reduce the effects of bias.

    Marjorie, your experiences are consistent with some of the research that shows that when there are few women in positions of authority, dynamics are created that lead women to undermine each other. In particular, you may find that the following research by Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely will resonate with you: Robin J. Ely, The Effects of Organizational Demographics and Social Identity on
    Relationships Among Professional Women,
    39 ADMIN. SCI. Q. 203, 203 (1994). In this research, Professor Ely compared the relationships among women at law firms that have very few female partners with those where women had more moderate representation. She found stark differences in how the women related to each other. In firms with few women in positions of authority, the women did not relate to each other and spoke of undermining, sabotage, competition, and disrespect. In contrast, where there were higher percentages of women in authority, women found their peers and superiors more supportive, better role models, etc.

    I discussed this dynamic and similar ones in a publication I wrote back in 2004: “Hostility to the Presence of Women”: Why Women Undermine Each Other in the Workplace and the Consequences for Title VII, Note, 113 Yale L.J. 1579, 2004.

    To me, the incredible thing is that the research shows just how much an environment (and here specifically the work environment) can shape how people relate to and view each other. It’s not that we simply have views (conscious or unconscious) and we act on them. Instead, we are very much influenced by our environments at any given time.

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