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Harvard Business Review study confirms that bias, not behavior, is to blame for gender inequality in the workplace

There is no question that full gender equality in the workplace is not a reality, but remains an aspiration. Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, and they are underrepresented in the ranks of upper management. The more controversial question remains: why? Is women’s behavior to blame? The many books telling women to “lean in,” be less “nice,” and otherwise adjust their behavior suggests so.

But an article first published in October 2017 in the Harvard Business Review confirms that the problem is not employee behavior, but management bias. Over a four-month period, the company Humanyze analyzed e-mails, speech and work patterns, movement, employee interactions, and performance evaluations, and other data points relating to employees at a multi-national company. At this company, women make up more than one-third of entry-level employees but just one-fifth of senior leadership. The data was collected, anonymized, and analyzed in a way that allowed Humanyze to know “who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations,” but not the content or substance of the communications.

The study’s findings are remarkable. The researchers “found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women” across all levels of seniority. Instead, the unequal treatment of women in this company, according to this study, was attributable to bias on the part of management: “Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior – to “lean in,” for example – might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

The difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior – to “lean in,” for example – might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

 

The Humanyze analysts make two suggestions about how companies can address the ongoing bias against women in the workplace. First, in addition to implementing bias-reduction programs, companies should mandate that a diverse slate of candidates be considered in conjunction with hiring and promotion decisions. A separate study showed that when candidates were analyzed as a group, managers were able to effectively compare them based on job performance. However, “when managers evaluated candidates individually they fell back on gendered heuristics. The result was poorer hiring decisions and more gendered choices (for example, more men were chosen for heavily quantitative roles).” A second proposed solution would have companies “consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a ‘family or work’ decision.”

Gender discrimination in employment has been a violation of federal law since the 1964 enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But while some progress has unquestionably been made since the 1960s, a myriad of problems persist. Women have yet to achieve equal pay within the workforce, and studies have confirmed that women remain underrepresented not just in c-suite positions, but in fact at every level in the corporate pipeline.

When companies are accused of discrimination, they inevitably issue statements about taking the accusations seriously and conducting a thorough investigation. But if a strong defense was once the best offense, that is no longer the case. Employers must be proactive about acknowledging the existence of conscious and unconscious biases and taking steps to level the playing field between men and women in the workplace. Customers are beginning to demand that employers get ahead of these issues, and most importantly, employees deserve the equal treatment that has been mandated by law for more than 40 years now.

If a strong defense was once the best offense, that is no longer the case. Employers must be proactive about acknowledging the existence of conscious and unconscious biases and taking steps to level the playing field between men and women in the workplace.

 

For more than 30 years, the Georgia women’s rights attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have been fighting to protect the rights of women who have experienced employment discrimination or retaliation, sexual harassment, and sexual assault or abuse. Jenn Coalson is a partner whose practice specializes in women’s rights issues. Contact us today for a free consultation about your legal rights.

The Humanyze study discussed in this post is the subject of the article “A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work,” by Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, and Ben Waber, first published in the Harvard Business Review in October 2017, available at https://hbr.org/2017/10/a-study-used-sensors-to-show-that-men-and-women-are-treated-differently-at-work.

The History of Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace

It is only in the last 50 years that sexual harassment has become recognized as an obstacle to a safe working environment for all employees. For hundreds of years it was nearly impossible for a woman to successfully bring claims of rape or a lawsuit for damages against an employer who harassed her or demanded sexual favors. The rise of the Women’s Rights Movement in the mid-1800’s brought to light the issue of sexual coercion of working women (particularly servants). However, this generally received less attention than women’s lack of access to property rights, poor working conditions, and societal dependence on men.

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Do Workplace Laws Protect New Parents?

One minute, you’re in the park lifting your recently fed, marvelously happy four-month old in the air, and the next the baby is screaming and has made her way into your spouse’s arms. Your spouse is stressed, you’re frustrated and life is unlike it ever was before.

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When Can Your Employer Fire You Over Your Driving Record

Unless you work under an employment contract or are a member of a union, an employer in almost every state can fire you at-will. “At-will” employment means employees can be fired for any reason (or for no reason) as long as the reason is not discriminatory. However, an employee is unlikely to be fired for his or her driving record unless their job requires them to have a valid license (commercial or standard) or to drive a company car or rental car obtained by the company. That said, employers’ insurance companies may refuse to insure an employee based on their risk as a driver.

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Diversity, Workplace and the Law: Winning Business

Recently, I heard the CEO of a Fortune 100 company (who is a white male) describe an “a-ha” moment he had. His “a-ha” moment occurred when he finally realized what diversity really means. While looking over the agenda for a senior leadership meeting, he saw “team building activity” on the list and asked the group, “So, where are we playing golf?”

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Can My Employer Force Me to Attend a Work Function?

Work functions: even if attendance is not mandatory, employees often feel compelled to attend.

Under most circumstances employers are permitted to require their employees attend a work function (even if it is outside normal business hours), because most states are at-will employment states. This means that an employee can be terminated or quit for any reason or no reason, as along as the employee is not part of a protected class, and the reason for termination is not unlawful discrimination. In at-will employment states, employees can be legally fired for not attending a mandatory work function that occurs outside normal business hours (even if that event occurs far away from their place of employment). Typical functions include holiday parties, meetings, weekend or evening retreats, and social or charity events. Sometimes these events are explicitly mandatory and sometimes there is strong peer pressure associated with attending— which makes them essentially mandatory events.

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Rehab: Can My Employer Punish Me for Attending?

Addiction affects everyone to some degree. If the addiction is severe enough—and perhaps requires rehab—addiction can affect employment. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are both federal laws that prohibit an employer from firing an employee for attending rehab or seeking treatment. An employer’s own policies or a union contract may also protect employees who attend rehab. However, an employer may terminate an employee for another valid reason such as: coming to work high or drunk, using on the job, increased absences from work, or decreased performance.

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Disability Law: What Resources Can Help My Autistic Child Find Work

As autistic children grow up, their parents may wonder how to help prepare their children for adulthood. They may ask: “Will my child be able to live on their own or will they need more regular care?”, “Will they have a social network and the support they need?”, “Will they be able to earn a living and support themselves with their disability?”. While autism may affect some differently than others, it’s important to note that all people with autism have protections and rights when it comes to employment.

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Work Uniforms: What is Legal?

While employers legally can and do set the standards when it comes to the dress and appearance of their employees—employers have to adhere to what’s laid out in a federal law called The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FSLA sets the minimum national standards for employment. States and localities may also pass more stringent laws that provide increased benefits and protections for employees in their geographic areas.

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Georgia Legislature Considers New Anti-Discrimination Law

The State of Georgia may have an anti-discrimination law on the books. This legislative session includes the introduction of House Bill 849 titled the “Georgia Civil Rights in Public Accommodations Act.” The Bill was introduced by the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Rep. Rich Golick and has wide bipartisan support. The Bill would ban businesses from turning away customers based on their race, color, sex, religion or national origin and applies to places of public accommodation including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, entertainment venues and other service industries across the State of Georgia.

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