The revelation by the New York Times last month that in the S&P 1500 there are more CEOs named John than there are women neatly sums up what we all already know: the glass ceiling is as solid as ever. Diversity targets are one way to influence the demographics of executive boards, but quotas won’t address the underlying bias against women as leaders .
In the 1970s Virginia Schein introduced the concept of ‘think manager, think male’ to sum up society’s tendency to associate managerial roles with traditionally ‘male’ traits such as assertiveness and confidence. More recent theories maintain that men are preferred for stereotypically masculine jobs which require these so-called ‘agentic’ characteristics, to do with independence, control and dominance, while women are preferred for jobs which require ‘communal’ traits such as empathy, kindness and emotional expressiveness.
These automatic associations may go some way to explain why women are so scarcely represented in leadership; not only do those doing the hiring assume males are better suited for the job, but women may hesitate to apply for senior roles which require stereotypically male characteristics. Recently several HR leaders have spoken to me about their attempts to remove gender-biased adjectives from job descriptions in order to attract a more balanced pool of candidates. They’ve found that advertising for a “dynamic, driven, results-oriented manager” yields a far more male-dominated pool than an advert for a “compassionate, thoughtful, approachable manager”, which attracts more female applicants. Removing such leading adjectives would go some way to putting women on a more equal footing, in that they’re less likely to self-select themselves out of the running. But it’s far more difficult to address the inbuilt bias of those making the hiring decisions.
A recent report published in the Journal of Applied Psychology analyzed the results of 111 studies into gender bias in the workplace published between 1970 and 2012, with data from over 22,000 participants overall. It examined the preference for male job candidates on decisions to do with hiring, promotion, compensation, competence and job performance, in a range of occupations and industries. There was a pro-male bias across all jobs, especially those considered ‘male dominated’ (as determined by the ratio of males to females employed in that occupation at the time of the study), but there was no bias towards female candidates for stereotypically ‘female’ occupations.
Interestingly, male raters had a much stronger pro-male bias than did female raters, indicating that the lack of women leaders could be a self-perpetuating issue . Male leaders are likely to be making the hiring decisions, and men have a greater preference for hiring men – one instance of the similarity attraction bias, in which we unconsciously gravitate towards people similar to ourselves.
So what can be done? Increasing the amount of information about each job candidate had an unclear effect; while in some cases it reduced the amount of pro-male bias, in other situations it increased it, especially when the information was ambiguous – i.e. it didn’t indicate whether or not that individual would succeed in the role. When extra information is ambiguous, it increases the cognitive load on the decision-maker, making it more likely that they’ll revert to relying on gender stereotypes. But when extra information clearly indicated that a female applicant was highly competent and suited for the role, the amount of pro-male bias reduced to almost zero, suggesting that females especially should provide context-relevant information if they wish to be promoted into senior roles.
One thing that did make a difference was whether or not the rater was motivated to make accurate, careful decisions. When participants were held accountable for their decisions, in that they were expected to justify them, when they believed that their decisions would have real-life consequences, or when they were reminded about norms of fairness in the organization, they made less biased decisions.
This meta-analysis underscores the fact that gender bias is complex and insidious. Nobody making a hiring decision would admit to preferring male candidates, but 22,000 people’s unconsciously biased choices say otherwise . Educating decision-makers about these natural, inbuilt biases, expecting them to explain and justify their judgments, ensuring that they have a vested interest in the outcome and advocating a social norm of fairness across the organization are all good starting points if we want to see more female names among all those Johns.
By Sebastian Bailey