The firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times has reignited attention to the topic of gender workplace bias. Her boss, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. insists the matter had nothing to do with gender. Whatever the reason, the biggest danger of modern gender workplace bias is that too often it can seem like no problem at all.
Not so long ago, overt gender bias was a perfectly acceptable office practice. That sort of in-your-face sexism is much rarer in today’s work environment, even if it’s only driven away by fear of a lawsuit.
That being said, the ‘disappearance’ of explicit sexism can give the false impression that it no longer exists. On the contrary, behavioral evidence compiled over the past two decades suggests workplace gender bias not only persists, but thrives in ways many of us don’t even realize—particularly for women in male-dominated professions. These stereotypes are so embedded in the cultural brain that we often serve them without being aware. The 2013 book The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy reveals that office sexism still exists, it’s just less blatant than it used to be.
Social scientists believe modern workplace gender bias generally takes two forms.
The first, known as descriptive stereotype, ascribes certain characteristics to women. They are caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on—traits consistently used to describe women for decades. Left alone those traits aren’t bad, of course, but when a woman performs a job traditionally held by men they can become incredibly harmful. Here’s where the male descriptive stereotypes come into play: Competent, assertive, decisive, rational, objective. When managers have little information about what an employee or candidate is actually like, they fill in the knowledge gap with these descriptive stereotypes, often to the detriment of women.
The second major form of gender bias is prescriptive. In this case, women who do break through and claim a traditionally male position are seen to have violated their prescribed norms. Here’s where the woman who should be compassionate acts forcefully and instead of being called decisive gets labeled “brusque” or “uncaring.”
The biases can break both ways: Men who violate gender norms by pursuing traditionally female jobs suffer, too. But women take a financial hit in addition to the social strain. Their starting salaries can be lower and women tend to be promoted on performance as opposed to potential, which can stall their rise or hasten their fall.
The looming question is why we let all these biases persist in the face of such an avalanche of evidence. Management scholar Victoria L. Brescoll of Yale, suspects the problem is so well hidden in the social psyche that it’s hard to spot let alone change. After all, no one wants to think of themselves as sexist these days. And studies have found that women themselves display the same biases, often evaluating female employees less favorably than males.
That lack of awareness makes the problem harder to address, especially if a company has an ineffectual gender equity policy in place. But steps can be taken to help. For instance, at a company level, removing inference from an evaluation can eliminate the gaps filled in with descriptive and prescriptive biases. Read the article to learn more about the research conducted. (Image via Shutterstock)