"An unconscious bias – including gender bias – is an ingrained belief. Unconscious biases are shaped by culture, family, and personal experience. They influence how we view and evaluate others. Yet, because they lurk below the surface, we rarely recognize that they inform our view of the world... According to FutureWork Institute, a global diversity consultancy, as many as 20% of large U.S. employers with diversity programs now provide unconscious-bias training, up from 2% five years ago."New Yorker:
Biases are detrimental to working women
Unconscious bias, often referred to as "second-generation discrimination," can be as subtle as the language used to describe men and women during performance reviews, as tech company Kanjoya discovered with its emotion-aware language-processing technology. For example, Kanjoya's technology, which has been developed in over eight years in collaboration with linguistics experts from Stanford University, finds that the word "assertiveness" is used to describe women negatively in reviews, but is correlated with positive reviews and promotions for men.
Yet some legal experts argue that the doctrine guiding many legal decisions about discrimination still hasn’t caught up with the realities of workplace gender relations. The existence of such discrimination can be hard to prove to judges and juries, who typically require that plaintiffs prove that an employer had the intent to discriminate. Melissa Hart, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that there appear to be more complaints these days “involving challenges to subtle structural problems in the workplace.” In cases relating to this type of bias, plaintiffs have sought to bolster their arguments by introducing broader circumstantial evidence that the general cultures of their workplaces were hostile toward women. In one ongoing lawsuit against Goldman Sachs, two female former employees, who allege that women were paid and promoted differently from their male counterparts, described a boys’-club culture at the firm that included trips to strip clubs.
Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford, told me, “The sort of evidence you’re seeing in the Ellen Pao case is very typical of what’s out there in Silicon Valley. There are no smoking guns; much of it is what social scientists call micro-indignities—small incidents that viewed individually may seem trivial, but when viewed cumulatively point to a practice of insensitivity and devaluation that can get in the way of work performance.”
A cumulative disadvantage
Bias bombardment holds professional women back in major ways. As The Wall Street Journal reports in “Gender Bias at Work Turns up in Feedback,” new research shows that men and women are assessed in radically different manners on the job due to unconscious biases. The article features Caroline Simard, director of research at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, who explains that our hidden biases can ultimately lead to “cumulative disadvantage over a woman’s career over time, resulting in lower access to key leadership positions and stretch assignments, advancement, and pay.”
Women are guilty too
Men are not the only ones perpetuating gender biases. Let’s not forget that women were also delivering performance reviews mentioned in the article above. As Sheryl Sandberg explains in an essay for The New York Times, “In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”
» 2011: Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms.
» 1997: Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of "Blind" Auditions on Female Musicians