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Voices / Column

When gender disparities continue

With second-generation bias, women still face uphill battles even in ‘progressive’ workplaces

Elayne Clift (elayneclift.com) writes about women, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

She is a successful businesswoman whose colleagues respect her. Still, she sometimes experiences “difficulty getting traction” for her ideas.

She has worked in her law firm for five years and has just had a child. Her boss advises her to take a staff role instead of staying on the management track.

“It will be easier,” he says. Too late, she realizes “there is no path back to the line.”

She likes her firm and feels she has been treated fairly. “But it seems every time a leadership role opens up, women are not on the slate,” she says.

What’s the common denominator in these scenarios? The answer is “second-generation gender bias,” a phenomenon that has been studied by the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College in Boston.

“Second-generation gender bias” is a term that highlights the subtle gender dynamics that exist within an organization’s culture and work norms. These norms and work practices go far in shaping such formal systems as hiring and promotion as well as compensation.

But these discriminatory actions are not deliberate. In fact, many organizational leaders are shocked to learn that their “progressive” businesses and institutions have fallen victim to such bias, which can affect men as well as women.

According to Dr. Špela Trefalt, a co-author of the Simmons study, second-generation gender issues “cover those work cultures and practices that appear neutral, but can result in differential experiences for and treatment of diverse groups of women and men.”

While seeming innocuous, cultural assumptions support the notion of men making better leaders and “reflect masculine values and the life situations of men who have dominated in the public domain of work,” Trefalt says.

Women’s “invisible work” — such as team-building, problem-solving, or addressing diversity issues — is often seen as displaying feminine attributes, but such skill sets need to be recognized as effective work.

As several experts recently pointed out on the Harvard Business Review blog, second-generation bias “does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context ... in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.”

And, they add, “without an understanding of [the phenomenon] people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men: If they can’t reach the top, it is because they ‘don’t ask,’ or are ‘too nice,’ or have simply ‘opted out.’”

These messages, they say, “tell women who succeed that they are exceptions and women who experience setbacks that it is their own fault for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job.”

* * *

Examples of gender-based dynamics abound. For example, good leaders are expected to be strong, confident, and assertive. But when women act in that manner, they are judged as self-promoting, aggressive, and worse.

If they act too collaboratively they are viewed as weak. And while many businesses and organizations have policies that appear to reflect work-family values, the ideal worker is often seen as the one who puts the job first. Since women remain the primary caregivers in families, the workplace edge goes to men.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 15 percent of American women believe they have been passed over for promotion or other work opportunities because of their gender. Some 13 percent thought they were denied a raise at some point because they were women.

The leadership gap between men and women in business is persistent despite measures to combat overt discrimination. The percentage of female corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies is stuck at 14 percent. Similarly, the percentage of women serving as board directors is 16 percent, while the percentage of women among top earners is only 8 percent.

Ironically, recent studies show a significant correlation between greater representation of women in executive and board positions and stronger financial performance.

* * *

So, what to do?

The first step, as with most challenges, is raising knowledge and awareness, the forerunner to behavior change. But beyond that, women need sponsors as well as mentors, among them male — and female — bosses who must be intentional in advocating for competent women with leadership skills.

As Špela Trefalt and her co-researchers say, “Working together, women and men need to intervene strategically to interrupt these dynamics in ways that are good for the organization, for women, and for men.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #240 (Wednesday, February 5, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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