How Unconscious Biases lead to Prejudices against Women in the Workplace

Stephanie Reich
Article
July 23, 2019

According to the study "Women in the Workplace" from 2018, 62% of management positions are still held by men. So-called "unconscious biases" or “blind spots” show that when power and authority have historically been held by one majority group, in this case men, it can be more difficult for women to reach these positions. The culprit can be in how implicit assumptions, which are linked to role models and behavioral conceptions, exert a considerable influence on how women are met in the workplace.

Recognizing Unconscious Biases: Questioning the Familiar

Often, certain assumptions and attitudes seem self-evident until one becomes aware of them in some way. The rise in awareness may start as feeling of something peculiar, or unfamiliar, prompting us to further wonder and question what has been taken for granted. One evening, when I stumbled upon the film “I’m Not An Easy Man,” I was exposed to such a situation. As the scene unfolded, I found myself reflecting on my existing images and gender roles in a humorous way for the first time. One aspect I couldn’t stop thinking about concerned women in leadership positions.

“Women in Leadership Positions - an Unusual Sight...”

…was my first thought when an office was shown in which all primary positions were occupied by women. The men found themselves exclusively at the reception desk and in the role of secretary. “Definitely an unfamiliar picture” I found myself noticing and mused. On the one hand, it seemed absurd, because those doing office work were almost exclusively members of one sex. On the other hand, and this probably irritated me the most, these were all representatives of the female sex. This irritation shows my expectations, my horizon of normality, in which management positions are not automatically associated with women. When looking at the facts, this comes as no surprise: According to the publication "Women in the Workplace" by McKinsey and LeanIn, only 38% of management positions are occupied by women; in the "C-Suite", the highest hierarchical level of a company, the figure is only 22%.

Why is it that women are still under-represented in these spheres? One possible reason could be the aforementioned expectations- our unconscious biases.

Unconscious Biases Affect All of Us - Always

Unconscious biases are assumptions about things, groups or individuals that we are unaware of. They result from our upbringing, our environment and personal experiences, and they affect our behavior. As part of the mental shortcuts our brain uses to filter the vast amount of stimuli we are exposed to, they belong to a natural, but unfortunately error-prone, process. Because everyone embodies certain qualities and belongs to different groups, associations are automatically generated about and applied to our counterparts. Accordingly, there are countless types of biases. Some of them seem especially important in the context of women in leadership positions, and two come to the forefront: likeability and performance bias.

"Unlikeable and Incompetent Women" - The Likeability Bias

In our society, we have certain expectations as to how women and men should behave. Women are more often associated with qualities like nurturing and caring, whereas men are associated with determination and assertiveness. Controlling and directive leadership styles are therefore preferably equated with these “male qualities”. When measured against a male standard of assertiveness, women may find themselves in a so-called "double-bind" situation: If they behave in a nice and caring manner, according to what is expected for a female, they are often not seen as a competent leader. However, if they behave like a male colleague, severe and determined, they will easily be seen as bossy or trying too hard and quickly become unlikeable. Both are part of the likeability bias and can result in women being considered for promotions only after their male colleagues.

Assumed Competence vs. Tangible Proof of Achievement - The Performance Bias

As far as promotion or the assigning of tasks is concerned, it can happen that those belonging to a dominant group, in this case white, heterosexual men, are assumed to have a certain"natural" level of competence, which seems perfectly sufficient as a qualification for a certain task. Whereas others, in this case women or others in the “minority”, first have to prove their abilities in order to be considered as qualified. It is also important to mention the performance attribution bias, where success is either attributed to internal features, like talent, or external factors such as chance. For example, if two people, a man and a woman manage to bring new clients into the firm, the woman’s success could be ascribed to her being helped by a mentor who already knew these clients, whereas the man’s success could be affiliated to his great networking skills. Here, too, we can see why women might face more difficulties to advance in their careers.

A Change of Perspective

As previously mentioned above, there are countless biases, with the given examples being only two of many. The film "Addressing Unconscious Bias" by McKinsey sums up other common assumptions and how they influence behavior towards women in management positions. I can only advise everyone to watch this film - either alone or with their colleagues. It is a good approach to making a change of perspective and to reflect on one's own (possibly similar) behavior. For more information on the subject and to understand sources of inspiration, see also “Managing Unconscious Bias”.