The illusion of gender equality

You can pass all the laws you like about equality of the sexes but until we tackle our own internal stereotyping about what we ourselves think about men and women, progress to real and full equality will continue at the current glacial pace.

There is an almost daily conversation about advancing women to the top and getting more of them onto Boards. Forcing companies to rebalance gender at senior levels with legislation around quotas has few fans as women, and men, want everyone to succeed through merit but the odds are often stacked against women without any of us realising.

According to Professor Correll from the Michelle Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford university, an unconscious gender bias against women has replaced the blatant sexism of previous decades. It’s invisibility makes it much more difficult to counter yet its effect continues to hold women back without … and we all seem to be part of the unconscious thinking that drives our judgements and decisions.

A Leaders Club Event in London April 10th

If you are in London you can join a conversation about the steps we can all take in correcting the gender balance at the top of business. Thursday April 10th the Leaders Club has an invite – do join us – find out more on this blog posting.
WATCH THE VIDEO: Transcript of my conversation with Professor Shelley Correll

Gina Lazenby:  I wanted to talk to you about your work around unconscious bias, where you share the findings from sending out the same CVs, with one set had a man’s name on and the other set had a woman’s name on.

Shelley Correll: the progress that we have made around the world that is where blatant bias and sexism has gone away. What we’re left with is the more unconscious kind of bias. This is harder to deal with because it is subtle and of course unseen. The blatant stuff is easier to see and root out.  At the Institute we have been doing a lot of training is to reduce the unconscious bias. One of the studies that we cite a lot is one that was done in the field of psychology, is where CV’s were sent out to universities applying for a brand new PhD faculty position in a psychology department. They got the receiving Department to rate the CV. Half of the CVs had a man’s name on, the other half had a woman’s name on. A perfect design to check out if a bias was there.

With a man’s name, the applicant is a much higher chance of success
Not only did the researchers find out that people greatly preferred the man over the woman – that is they saw him as being worthy of hire – the gap was astonishingly large. It was a 30% gap between recommending the man be hired versus the woman be hired.  That was in 1995. Have things got better since?  In 2012 a similar study was done in the USA for a person applying to be a Science Lab Manager. The same research design and it was sent to science faculties all over the USA. Sure enough in 2012 we found the same patterns.  The faculty doing the rating said they were more likely to hire the man and the woman; if they were going to hire the man they were going to pay him a higher salary; and they said they were more likely to mentor the man should he be hired.

20 years after the study, research shows women are STILL disadvantaged
We see women being disadvantaged across all those dimensions, even in 2012, even in a Science Faculty where we might expect more objectivity. There is no reason to believe that these people set out to do bad things, it’s just that gender is affecting how they see the applicant, even without them being aware of it. And that is a really tough problem that we have been working on.

These things come about because we are quickly categorising people without even thinking about it.  And if we didn’t do that then we wouldn’t be able to make it through the day. When you go to sit down in a chair you have never seen before you don’t stop and puzzle over it being  chair. You couldn’t get through life without being able to take these shortcuts … that’s what’s happening here, unfortunately it is introducing bias into our evaluations. It is the kind of thing that we have to be very diligent about paying attention to – how it is that we are evaluating men versus women and very much self-monitoring our decision making.

We have to think about what we think about!
GL: I think that is right, when you point out about shortcuts in our thinking. This is where we can pause and be more conscious of our thinking. On the basis that this is happening, and you have done this research in America, I am sure it will be the same in the UK … what about this question of quotas that people talk about. If I was a senior woman in a senior position in a large organisation and they talked about quotas, if I project myself out into that situation, if I got promoted I would wonder “is it because i am good or is it because I am filling up the numbers”? So I can see the resistance but the rate of change is so glacial, what do you think about the conversation about quotas?

Increasing  the numbers of women is important, we need to find more creative ways
SC: It really is a double-edged sword. On the one hand change has been so slow and so putting a quota up there immediately starts to change the numbers and changing the numbers are extremely important … I think we know that getting more women into positions of power is extremely important not only for equality but for our societies, for our businesses and all of that but you’re right it comes at a cost and the cost is that you as a woman might think “oh, was I really talented enough to be here?”.

Even if you think you were, those people around you might suspect that you are there because of the quota not because you are talented. And so I think that is the negative side of it … to me if there was some other way to get women into those positions without a quota that’s what I would prefer. It’s just I don’t know what that is. I think we have to manage the stigma that could become associated with women if people think they are in those positions just to fill a slot.

It reminds me of one of my colleagues here who was the first female law professor at the Stanford Law School. Someone asked her when she got the job how it felt to get the job because she was a woman, she said it feels a lot better than not getting the job because I was a woman. As that has been my experience before!

GL: You are right, it is a challenging discussion, but I think even just talking about it pushes the agenda forward. The threat of it, the possibility pushes the conversation forward.

Young people now seeking careers in more gender equitable companies

SC:  In the USA, with quotas, it’s a bad word .. I think similar things that have been done are where people publish data about law firms, with the percentage of partners that are women … they put them up when students are looking for jobs and the companies respond to that because young students today want to work in places that are gender equitable. You put those numbers up there to shame people and draw attention to it. I think that helps as well.

GL: Providing information, being transparent, I think that is the key isn’t it.

Read about another conversation with Professor Correll on the Motherhood Penalty and watch the video.

Join us at the event in London on April 10th to discuss actions we can rake to start leveling the playing field.