Ask any CEO of a major company to rate the importance of having a diverse workforce, and you are most likely going to hear that diversity is “critically important”. The CEO might then speak of their diversity program, and indicated the percentage of employees who qualify as minorities. Yet diversity is not merely a numbers game. The benefits are only achieved through the combination of different work styles and different points of view.
Most women in America entered the workforce after the enactment of laws protecting them from discrimination. The question is, how much have things changed over the past twenty years.
Recent research indicates that gender bias is still rampant in the workplace, although it may manifest itself in more subtle ways.
Research published by Professor Ann Marie Ryan of Michigan State University in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly describes a study in which 674 participants (both males and females) evaluated either a female or a male applicant applying for a traditionally masculine position in a traditionally masculine field (engineering manager). Results showed that women who described themselves using masculine-like traits (assertive, independent, achievement oriented) were evaluated as more fitting for the job than those who emphasized female-like traits (warmth, supportiveness, nurturing, researchers report.
Does that mean that women who “act like men” during interviews are more likely to get the job? Not necessarily, as indicated in a recent National Science Foundation study conducted by business-school professors from Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago.
Two hundred female and male hiring managers evaluated 150 candidates to be hired to perform a mathematical task. Although the men and women scored equally well, both male and female managers were twice as likely to hire a man as a woman — even when the managers had no information beyond a candidate’s appearance and, therefore, gender. Further, when the candidates were allowed to tell the managers how well they performed; women were still only half as likely to be hired as men, the study showed. The male candidates boasted about their abilities, while women downplayed their talents. When women boasted about their skills they were perceived negatively, instead of as confident and ambitious. When the managers were explicitly shown the women could perform the tasks just as well as the men, the result was still that men were 1.5 times more likely to be hired. Even worse, when managers hired a job applicant who performed worse on the test than a fellow candidate, two-thirds of the time the lesser candidate was a man.
These studies indicate that corporate America continues to have a preference for a “masculine style of leadership”. This is most clearly borne out in industries that are heavily dependent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Statistics published by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicate that women are significantly under-represented in STEM careers.
Women who aspire to take up top management roles or work in science and mathematics fields invariably find themselves pitted against negative perceptions and assumptions – whether conscious or unconscious. To illustrate, a study across 5300 alumnae of the University of Wisconsin’s engineering studies found that 40% of the women engineers moved away from the profession within the first 5 years to find better jobs in other fields. A third of them ended up staying at home, tending to their families, when their workplaces would not accommodate their caregiving responsibilities!
But, if women change themselves to fit into a recruiter or employers perception of behaviors and styles indicating ambition, confidence, and other positive qualities, they may actually deprive the workplace of the benefits of the very diversity their presence in the workplace represents. Instead, business leaders need to start educating themselves and managers about the issue of gender bias. .
So, if you truly are committed to hiring the very best talent and creating an environment in which that talent may thrive, it may be time to review your recruitment and promotion policies, factoring in these new insights to see if the women you recruit are able to contribute positively to the diversity of your workplace, or not!
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