Gender Bias at Work: The Argument for Gender Diversity Targets

Gender Bias at Work: The Argument for Gender Diversity Targets

by Felicity Menzies
This following exercise powerfully demonstrates why firms can benefit from gender diversity targets:
A father and son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son was seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and his body was taken to a local morgue. The son was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and was immediately wheeled into an emergency operating room. A surgeon was called. Upon arrival and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed ‘’Oh my God, it’s my son!‘’
Can you explain this?
Around 40% of people who are faced with this challenge do not think of the most plausible answer—being the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Rather, readers invent elaborate stories such as the boy was adopted and the surgeon was his natural father or the father in the car was a priest. For some individuals, the stereotypical association between surgeon and male is so strong that it interferes with objective problem solving and accurate judgments.


Stereotypes refer to beliefs that certain attributes, characteristics, and behaviours are typical of members of a particular group of people. Stereotypes assign a whole suite of characteristics, positive and negative, to anyone categorised as being from that group. We have stereotypes for social groups like Women, Asians, Millennials and also stereotypes for roles like Leader, Mother, Surgeon.
Stereotypes form from our experiences. Stereotyping involves taking what we learn from our social or cultural setting to be typical of a group of people from either our direct experiences with them or indirectly via the media or social discourse and assigning those traits and characteristics to all individuals belonging to that group.
Stereotypes form involuntarily – we don’t have control over whether or not we will develop a stereotype. We do not even need to believe a stereotype for it to develop as a schema, we just have to be exposed to it. For example, as we are repeatedly exposed to actual incidences or media portrayals of females as collaborative, nurturing and homemakers, and men as assertive, competitive, and bread-winners, those associations become automated in our long-term memory. These biases are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about it. Stereotypes reflect what we see and hear every day, not what we consciously believe about what we see and hear. It is possible for us to hold unconscious stereotypes that we are consciously opposed to.
Because stereotypes form passively without conscious thought, they can exist intragroup as well as intergroup – in general, women have as much trouble with the Father-Son activity as men do. Other women and men, however, may successfully solve the puzzle. Because stereotypes reflect our lived experiences, individuals (regardless of their gender) with mothers or partners who are surgeons or who have been treated by female surgeons during their lives or who have other lived experiences with female surgeons are more likely to identify the most plausible solution that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Individuals who have few lived experiences of surgeons as females are less likely to reach the same conclusion.


Like other psychological functions, stereotypes have an adaptive benefit. By perceiving individuals in terms of their social categories, we can form assumptions and expectations about others. Social categorisation provides a sense of order and predictability to our world that, in turn, we rely upon to guide our interactions. Without social categorisation, our social encounters would be very complex and stressful. We would enter every novel encounter with limited understanding of the other person’s motivations, interests and expertise. Stereotypes, in contrast, offer us a roadmap for navigating an effective interpersonal exchange. If we invite a German to dinner, we have a good chance of making him happy if we give him a beer and a frankfurt.
However, stereotypes can be problematic because they are socially-constructed, arbitrary, and frequently invalid. They are often not an accurate representation of an individual member of that social group.
Both stereotyping and affinity bias are cognitive shortcuts that evolved to help us efficiently process the millions of stimuli bombarding our brains at any one time, freeing up mental resources for other tasks. But in today’s workplaces, social biases are problematic because they interfere with the objective assessment and the fair treatment of individuals, thereby creating workplace inequality and stifling diversity. This is a leadership concern because, in today’s business environment, workforce diversity can be a significant competitive advantage.


Stereotypes operate beneath our level of consciousness, influencing our decisions in ways in which we are not aware and most likely would deny. Research shows a consistent or systemic devaluing of women relative to men in professional settings even by individuals who explicitly endorse egalitarian beliefs and reject sexism.
If women are judged more critically than men in the workplace, what does this do to female confidence and ambition? Over time, women can come to internalise gender bias with negative implications for female confidence. A study by HP showed that men applied for promotions when they perceived they met 60% of a role description whereas women only put their hands up when they felt they met 100% of the role requirements.


Managing unconscious bias at work is problematic because, by definition, an individual is unaware of its influence. Also, because we are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, we all see bias vested in others but not in ourselves. But we all have biases. Bias is inevitable as a result of social conditioning and cognitive processes. Studies show that even individuals who truly believe that they are non-prejudiced hold unconscious biases.
A critical step, therefore, in combatting bias is to make people aware of their biases and to equip them with strategies to mitigate their biases through unconscious bias training. However, although unconscious bias training is necessary, it is not sufficient for creating fairer workplaces. Combatting bias at work requires workplace cultures and practices that support the goals of unconscious bias training and encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired in training back to the workplace. Because bias can be institutionalised, it is critical that workplaces scrutinise existing cultures and practices for bias. For example, removing gender-biased criteria in selection, assignment or performance evaluation; asking people to justify their decisions with facts to help them move away from making assessments on ‘gut’ feel and ‘hiring for fit’; making workplaces more flexible; mentoring and sponsorship programs.
But that is still not enough. Stereotypes and related biases are socially constructed and reflect our experiences – what we see as typical and normal when we go to work every day. The only way to deconstruct gender stereotypes is to redefine ‘normal’ as both women and men holding senior roles in similar proportions. Normalising women in leadership will reprogram or rewire our unconscious brains far more effectively than training.
Promoting women in leadership roles does not imply lowering the bar. We know from the studies above and many others that women suffer a competency evaluation handicap in professional settings. If we look downwards in our organisations, we will find competent women who, in a non-gendered world, should have been promoted on the basis of their achievements or who have been overlooked for development. Mandated targets force organisations to look past their biases to identify those women to give them same development and promotion opportunities that have been offered to their male counterparts. It is not only fair to those particular women, but lifting those women up to where they belong also helps to dismantle pervasive and entrenched gender stereotypes and establishes role models for other women who are aspiring the leadership roles. (Studies show that the dearth of female role models undermines female professional confidence and ambition).
Promoting women is not only is it the right thing to do, it is smart business. Companies with a woman in the chief executive or chairman role have performed far better than a major global index over the past eight years, according to an analysis by the bank Nordea of nearly 11,000 companies globally. As first reported by Bloomberg, the study found that on average, companies with a woman in either of those two top jobs at the end of the calendar year more than doubled the performance of the MSCI World Index in the following year. The annualized return for female-led firms, based on an equal weighting, was 25 percent since 2009, compared with just 11 percent for the broader market.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.