Gender Bias in the Workplace

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Archana, an IT professional and a first-time mom, came back from her maternity leave. Archana requested her manager for a work-from-home arrangement as she wanted to keep an eye on the nanny and ensure her baby was getting the right care. After weeks of convincing the management and service level agreements around her key result areas, Archana was able to work from home.

It was a win-win proposition for all – the organization (it managed to engage and retain its talent by providing the flexibility and infrastructure), manager (manager did not want to lose one of his solid performers) and Archana (she could keep her job while juggling her family demands unlike most other women, who drop out of workforce as they do not get the support or infrastructure to advance their careers while managing their family responsibilities).

However, reality was far from this. Archana’s colleagues began to make unfair comments that she is getting paid to take care of her baby. Her manager did not include her in a plum project (till now, she was a part of all the projects that were led by her boss). On more than one occasion, the HR did not fix up her meeting with visiting executives from the Headquarters while all her colleagues got a chance to meet the officials.

Bias is at play here. The case of Archana is not a one-off situation. Even a male employee, who would opt for reduced work hours or work from home to look after child or elderly persons(traditionally, considered a woman’s job) faces such a bias. Sadly but evidently, bias exists at a tacit level in workplaces. While explicit behavior or biases (which are seen less than hidden biases) are easier to manage for organizations, it is the implicit perceptions that prove tricky. After all, it is not possible to completely separate our personal prejudices and perceptions from professional behavior?  Most of us have some sort of bias or prejudice about particular color, race, religious affiliations, appearances, etc.  Biases stem from a person’s background, social conditioning and experience and this affects workplace behavior.

“Bias affects what we notice about people, how we interpret their behavior and what we remember about them. And both men and women have biases,” says Nimisha Rastogi, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and leadership coach.    

Gender bias, in particular, is about common perceptions that people have about men and women. For instance, men are supposed to be more assertive, competent and committed to their careers compared to women.  Likewise, women are supposed to be more sensitive and caring. A report by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, concurs this. Catalyst studied the talent management systems at 110 global companies across 19 industries found that the majority of talent managers surveyed evaluated their senior executives as primarily displaying stereotypically masculine characteristics and competencies. The three most commonly mentioned characteristics – action-oriented, driving results and focusing on problem-solving—are stereotypically masculine, according to the report titled Cascading Gender Biases, Compounding Effects: An Assessment of Talent Management Systems released in 2009.

When leaders are described by masculine stereotypes, employees are viewed as less competent, if they demonstrate qualities, characteristics and skills that are considered atypical, reveals the report. This results in a perpetual cycle that can overlook and underutilize female top performers. Yet, women might be disadvantaged if they fail to demonstrate stereotypically feminine attributes such as warmth and sensitivity. Women, at their end, need to stop reconciling with male behavior and attributes as the default or ideal. They must insist on getting their choices embraced.

“These biases and judgments impact formal employment decisions and women’s careers,” says Nimisha. In many ways women, too, play a role in creating biases against them, she adds. She gives an example to elucidate her point. “Women are often reluctant to stay late for work if required or attend an office party after work hours. In the bargain, they end up creating a bias against themselves that they do not like to stretch,” says Nimisha, adding, “women need to change that sort of behavior conditioning and behave like an equal if they want to be treated with equality.” Women have to be able to gear up to the professional demands and push for more support and conducive infrastructure - both at office and home.  They need to be in charge of their own destinies.

Stereotypes do not just impact hiring decisions but also impact leadership succession. The fundamental aspects of many talent management systems are linked in ways that disadvantage women, creating a vicious cycle in which men continually dominate executive positions. The reasons include lack of senior leadership commitment, dearth of appropriate checks and balances to minimize gender biases, level-playing field for men and women, and gaps between design and execution in talent management programs.

Getting Past Gender Bias

Experts suggest the following to address the issue of gender bias at workplace:

  • Educate leaders about how stereotypes can influence job assignments and performance appraisals negatively.
  • Train employees at all levels to recognize effective gender-neutral leadership characteristics.
  • Raise overall awareness of employees about negative impact of bias on business
  • Create an inclusive work environment
  • Regularly audit HR processes and policies, evaluate the presence of gender-stereotypic language in talent management systems.

It is not at the leadership levels alone that one sees women getting disadvantaged. Gender biases, lack of support (mentoring, women) networks and right infrastructure (flexi timings, telecommute, reduced work hours during child or elderly care) are impacting the advancement of women across the workforce spectrum. In fact, the number of Indian women who sacrifice their careers for the sake of family is only growing.

A recent article in the leading daily, Hindustan Timesquoted a report by National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) that revealed around 46.4% women in India were engaged in domestic duties in 2009-10, an increase of about five percentage points since 1999-2000. The report also highlighted that around 33% women in rural India and 27% in urban areas wanted to work from home on a regular basis but there were very less opportunities.

Working women across the world face much more difficult life circumstances compared to men. Many women cope with a work life in which good day care and household help is either unaffordable or unavailable. In addition, the education system is such that working parents cannot afford not to devote time teaching their children. Most women’s big struggle is about holding on to their careers while performing parenting or caregiving roles. This entire struggle is impacting women’s state of mind.  And a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men, according to noted economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. In their study, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, they reveal although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.

Even as we see some workplace advancements in terms of increased flexibility, use of technology to balance work life better, day care and other services to employees, recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer stirred up a hornet’s nest when she recently issued a memo ending the work-at-home option for Yahoo employees. Ending the option will not be such a bad thing if Mayer is able to create a supportive work environment like Googleplex but if not, she will be doing huge disservice to moms and those with long commutes. In larger context, Mayer has a responsibility not just to women in Yahoo but across the world because of the enviable position she has. Mayer had the rank and fat salary to have a nursery built close to the office. Not all women have that luxury. As a role model, her moves and decisions can have repercussions on the movement to foster more inclusive workplaces.

In closing, what calls for here is even deeper commitment from corporations, political class, society and specifically women to look beyond International Women’s Day celebrations, and bring in systemic changes that will help women around the world achieve professional, political and personal success. Women of the world, unite!

Rajeshwari Sharma is Editor, SHRM India

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