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Barbie Has Highlighted Gender Bias In The Workplace, But Is The Issue As Prominent As We Think?

The new Barbie Movie highlights the gender bias in the workplace excellently. But is it an issue that is as prominent as we think?
Can removing gender from the equation improve prospects for women in the workplace?
  • Barbie highlights the possible gender bias that can occur in the workplace, how can managers reduce the possibilities of this?
  • The use of ‘blinding’ (the process of making applications anonymous) might enable putting men and women on equal footing
  • The findings suggest that experimenting with ‘blinding’ can expose bias, rather than cure it

The recent release of the box office smash hit Barbie has opened the eyes of many when it comes to the issue of gender bias in the workplace.

When Ken experiences the real world, he is faced with the realisation that men hold a hierarchy over women in many workplaces. But when he asks for jobs, banking on his gender and his fabulous sense of style to get what he wants, rather than any experience or qualifications, he is turned down.

For Ken audiences might feel a sense of sympathy, at least until they realise that being judged on appearances is a reality that women face all too often in the workplace.

Women’s personalities over their skills:

A recent article in Forbes shared the sobering fact that, when going for promotions or putting themselves forward for new projects at work, “women are 22% more likely to get feedback on their personality,” rather than their ideas and skills compared to male colleagues.

The piece commented that women “are expected to walk a tightrope every day and are continually subject to judgment about whether they are getting it right.” In contrast, men’s feedback tends to be more practical. They are “coached on how to effectively engage in and leverage office politics”, and given tools on how to improve their prospects and ascend the career ladder.

This raises the question, does focusing on the wrong things stop people with amazing ideas from getting ahead professionally? Or can people’s ideas and qualifications triumph over their identity?

Does Gender Bias really affect getting ahead?

Research from ESMT Berlin explores exactly this issue. Professor Linus Dahlander, alongside Arne Thomas, Amsterdam Business School, Martin Wallin, Chalmers University of Technology, and Rebecka Ångström, Stockholm School of Economics, conducted an experiment within a large multinational technology company, in which they tested two different ways of evaluating ideas presented by employees:

  • Hiding the identity of the employee and only highlighting their ideas – a popular method known as ‘blinding’
  • Revealing the employee’s identity, including their name, location, and the unit they worked for

Professor Dahlander and his colleagues recognise that “prior work on idea evaluation has, for example, explained how biases could arise from hierarchy, sequence and nepotism”. So, the question Dahlander wanted to ask was; is an idea evaluated differently when you can see the identity of the person who suggested it, as opposed to when you only see the idea but know nothing of its origin?

The researchers asked 38 innovation managers across the firm to each evaluate almost 50 different ideas, of which half were presented to them blind, and half were not. To ensure that the managers acted candidly in their decision making, Professor Dahlander and his colleagues kept them unaware of the nature of their evaluations.

Some Unexpected Results

Surprisingly, despite looking for bias, the researchers found that the innovation managers provided the same evaluation score to ideas proposed by men and women. The gender of the idea proposer seemed to have no impact on whether the idea was judged as good or not.

So, does that mean that gender bias is not as prevalent as we think? Well, given the wealth of prior research into this issue covering companies and industries around the world, and the face that many of us have seen and experiences gender bias in action, it would seem the issue certainly exists, and poses a significant challenge.

Instead, what the study suggests is that common methods employed by managers to help remove bias from the workplace might not be as effective as they think they are.

Dahlander states “our new findings clearly show that the gender or a shared unit or location of the evaluator has no impact on whether the idea is approved,” going on to explain, “our research tells managers that simply hiding the identity of idea proposers, that is, what we call ‘blinding’, is no silver bullet to improving idea evaluation.”

The Negatives of Blinding

The researchers suggest that these findings harm the business case for encouraging blinding to avoid biases. Blinding also reduces the potential to connect to employees with similar interests and learn from what other people are working on.

However, there is something to be learned. Professor Dahlander suggests, the process can still hold value. Rather than using blinding to try and treat male and female employees equally in a recruitment or assessment process, instead such methods can be used to help pinpoint if a company has a bias problem in the first place.

Gender Bias is still an issue in Society

Issues such as the gender pay gap is still highly a topic that needs to be discussed with women globally earning on average 16% less than men. Even in the Barbie movie the headquarters is run solely by men with women only in secretarial roles throughout the film. The men are being trusted in making dolls that are supposed to represent women of society when they have very little idea of what women must deal with day to day.

I encourage you to listen to America Ferrara’s speech from the film as it highlights the tightrope women are faced with.

By, Millie Jones

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