Gender bias doesn’t discriminate


HACKENSACK, N.J. – It’d be nice to think gender isn’t a factor in career success.

Nice, but foolish.

Truth is, examples of blatant gender stereotyping aren’t too hard to find. Some are downright notorious.

Just this year, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers said that women may not have as much inherent aptitude in math and science as men. And more recently, prominent advertising executive Neil French resigned from his job after creating a clamor when he said women don’t “deserve” to hold power positions in the industry because they “wimp out” to have children.

But what’s a work force to do when such gender stereotyping comes not only from men but also from women themselves?

Women’s research and advocacy organization Catalyst recently revealed the problem in a study of nearly 300 male and female corporate executives. The organization also made suggestions about what can be done to begin changing such ingrained stereotypes.

The study found that men and women executives both generally consider the guys to be better at so-called take-charge behaviors such as decision-making and delegating responsibility.

Also, executives of both genders generally consider women better at “take-care” behaviors such as being supportive and rewarding others.

“Most men see men as problem-solvers, and a lot of women also perceive men as problem-solvers,” said Jeanine Prime, author of the study and director of research at Catalyst. “It can be a barrier to advancement.”

And since problem-solving is the skill that is widely considered the most important for a leader to possess, Prime said, the finding doesn’t bode well for women working their way up the corporate ladder.

“Adding insult to injury,” Prime said, “these perceptions mean women may have the least interpersonal power with people who report to them.”

Catalyst contends that statistics on women in the workplace illustrate, at least in part, the ill effects of such stereotyping.

Even though women now hold just a smidgen more than half of all management and professional positions in the U.S. work force, for example, they make up less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs, and less than 8 percent of Fortune 500 top earners.

“Ultimately, it’s the companies that suffer. Developing and retaining the best talent is key to remaining competitive in the global business world,” Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, said in a statement. “Until we break the spell of stereotyping, companies will continue to sub-optimize women and lose a vital talent pool – one they, frankly, cannot afford to ignore.”

Catalyst is planning further studies aimed at helping companies unmask and minimize gender biases.

In the meantime, Catalyst is suggesting that companies change performance evaluation processes to include safeguards against stereotyping, and implement other programs that challenge perceptions about gender differences.

“Most well-intentioned people are still subject to unconscious bias,” Prime said.

“That’s why it’s not enough to just hire more women into management positions. To bring about lasting change, you have to look at the sources of bias and add a layer of rigor into performance evaluations that make people address it.”