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Gender Bias Stops Women From Taking Charge

As long as there are different baseline probabilities for men and women to reach leadership positions, the gender bias is going to be present and will result in more ‘Johns’ getting positions ahead of female applicants.
  • Women who are equally qualified to men are expected to collect more “observable skills” than men to get ahead in their careers
  • Women are often judged more on their personality than their skillset when attempting to secure promotion
  • Men hire men

At the start of April 2023, the world was celebrating that, finally,women chief executive officers finally – definitively – outnumber male CEOs with the first name John”.

The fact this was even something worth celebrating is mind-blowing, but it highlights a very important issue – despite the many commitments made by corporations to level the playing field, there is a distinct lack of female leaders in many workplaces. So what’s going wrong?

There are more than a few hurdles for women to overcome when it comes to standing shoulder to shoulder – or even above – their male colleagues.

An article in the Harvard Business Review highlights that; organisations “advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen, and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders”.

Perception Matters

Perception is vitally important. Women are expected to fit the mould of the male leaders who came before them, and little is being put in place to help change that perspective, or to support women as they progress through their careers in order for them to take on a leadership role. “The context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognize and encourage her efforts—even when she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives,” the authors continue.

Furthermore, it seems that even when men lack the necessary experience for a leadership role, recruiters are more willing to look past this than they would be for a woman. A McKinsey report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, compared to women who are hired based on their experience and track record. 

Another study, also covered by Harvard Business Review suggests that “men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them”. When looking at the reasons why, the article states that “men are confident in their ability at 60% but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.”

It isn’t that women don’t believe in their abilities, it is more that they believe the required qualifications are, well, required. As a result, they do not put themselves forward.

No wonder so many Johns found their way to the top.

Acknowledging a Disadvantage

As long as there are different baseline expectations for men and women in the workplace, the pressure is on for women to be able to to display a greater level of skills than men in order to be considered for progression.

This sorry fact was highlighted in research conducted by Professor Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi and PhD candidate Leah Zimmer from Mannheim Business School, which demonstrated how gender bias can impact the hiring process.

The researchers analysed the biographic information of over 100,000 company directors, focusing on two categories of what they called “observable skill signals” – facts and accomplishments that you can hand straight to an employer.

  • Signals of higher education – such as a degree
  • Signals of professional experience – such as previous professional roles

In contrast “unobservable skills”, the researchers explain, focus more on elements of an applicant’s personality, such as their emotional intelligence, communication skills and critical thinking.

They found that signals of higher education and professional experience increased a male director’s probability of entering a leadership role by 5.9%, and upped their pay by 6.8%.

Female directors with the same signals were found to be 12.9% more likely to enter a leadership position, and secure a 21.2% higher rate of pay.

Whilst such figures initially sound quite positive, its worth digging a little deeper. These findings, the researchers suggest, are relative to the different baseline probabilities for men and women to reach leadership positions, acknowledging the fact that women are less likely to reach leadership positions or receive higher pay compared to men to start with.

Men Hire Men

As the female and male directors in their sample were equally qualified, their results suggest female directors are held to higher standards when it comes to filling a leadership position. So, what is holding well qualified women back?

Professor Niessen-Ruenzi states that “observable skill signals are more important for female directors if the hiring decision is made only by men”. The study goes on to suggest that male employers can estimate job applicants’ unobservable qualifications more precisely when candidates belong to their own gender.

And, with fewer women in the driving seat to begin with, more often than not, such decisions will continue to be made by men.

The impact of such bias, and how to prevent it has been reflected on in many other studies, but it comes back to providing sufficient support and opportunities for all staff, regardless of gender, as they grow in their careers.

Making Positive Change – Where do Managers go Next?

As long as there are different baseline probabilities for men and women to reach leadership positions, the gender bias is going to be present and will result in more ‘Johns’ getting positions ahead of female applicants.

From here, employers don’t just need to acknowledge that there is an issue but make conscious strides to combat it.

From this article alone we have established multiple studies to highlight the problems, it is now time to act.

By, Millie Jones

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