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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.