An increasing body of evidence shows a statistically significant relationship between the financial performance of a company and the extent of diversity in its leadership team. While the evidence only supports a correlation, not necessarily a causal link, the findings indicate that businesses with diverse leadership teams, encompassing executive and board diversity, outperform businesses with homogenous leadership teams. Outcomes include:
- Increased productivity
- Increased profitability
- Better stock growth
- Higher customer satisfaction
- Improved problem-solving and performance on complex tasks
- Increased innovation and creativity
- Lower corporate fraud
- Improved corporate sustainability and CSR efforts
Diversity at leadership supports organisational performance in a number of ways: a diverse workforce supports growth across diverse and rapidly changing markets because diverse employees can better understand and respond to the needs of varied customers or clients; the greater variety of ideas and perspectives accompanying a diverse leadership team increases the breadth of solutions available for problem-solving, promotes more critical information-processing in decision making, prevents groupthink, and challenges and changes existing business processes and assumptions to drive innovation in the firm’s practices and products and services; a diverse leadership also supports growth by increasing access to new suppliers and the formation of positive partnerships with other stakeholders such as policy-makers or investors across global markets; also, when an organisation widens its executive recruitment efforts past traditional talent pools to executive talent it may have overlooked in the past it increases its likelihood of identifying and appointing the most effective leaders in the market.
Recognising the competitive advantage of diversity, organisations across all industries are setting more aggressive diversity targets and ramping up their efforts to attract, retain and promote diverse talent to leadership roles. Yet, despite those efforts, the majority of organisations fail to achieve their leadership diversity targets. Many global organisations openly claim that the profile and demographics of their entry-level population are a direct reflection of their desire to cultivate diversity. But, as we know, this mix diminishes greatly over time, often after just a few years. Despite significant investment in recruiting for and retaining diverse talent, workplace inequality limits the progression of employees from non-traditional backgrounds. As a consequence, leadership teams remain largely homogenous, limiting the organisation’s ability to capture the outperformance associated with senior executive and board diversity.
Inclusive organisations scrutinise the employee life-cycle for institutionalised bias and train recruiters and managers in fair and objective recruitment, selection, appraisal, development, and promotion so to ensure that members of non-dominant cultural or social groups have a fair chance of progressing in the organisation alongside members of the traditionally dominant group. Because workplace bias is largely unconscious and hidden, fair progression can be the most difficult of the four factors of inclusion (respect, belonging, empowerment, and fair progression) to achieve.
In addition to supporting leadership diversity, employers that offer all employees a fair chance of achieving their full-potential increase engagement and well-being across the workforce. When employees perceive that they have a fair chance of success they are motivated, committed and experience higher levels of work satisfaction and lower levels of job stress. Self-actualisation, or the realisation or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, is recognised in motivational models as a higher-order need. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualisation sits at the top of his pyramid of human needs. Fair workplaces have an increased chance of attracting, retaining and engaging diverse talent across all levels of an organisation, in turn supporting the development of a robust pipeline of diverse future leaders.
Risks to progression
Let’s take a minute for a quick activity. For this activity, you will need a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Now, on your piece of paper, please write down in a column on the left-hand side of the page the initials of six people who you trust the most who are not family members. Do not read on until you have listed your trusted six.
Once you have listed your trusted six, place a tick beside those of your trusted 6 who are similar to you in the following dimensions (one tick for every characteristic shared with that individual):
- Race or ethnicity
- Age (plus or minus 5 years)
- Sexual orientation
- First/native language
- Academic qualifications (HSC, Bachelor, Postgrad etc)
- Professional expertise
Now, pause to review the number of ticks you have against your trusted six. What can you tell me about your trusted six? Our trusted six often display minimal diversity – for most of us, our inner circle will include people with backgrounds similar to our own. Some of you might have a more diverse circle, which usually reflects that you have been raised or have worked in very diverse settings.
Now, let’s consider the implications of having a trusted six very similar to ourselves for leadership progression. Assume you are a leader. When you assign responsibility for a high-profile piece of work, who will you entrust with that responsibility? Of course, you will likely offer stretch or development opportunities to those individuals whom you trust the most. Those people, it turns out, are people who are similar to you. Now, because success on high-profile assignments is critical for emerging as a leader, this tendency to extend greater trust and, in turn, favour people like ourselves when assigning stretch assignments leads to self-cloning and promotes homogeneity in leadership. Though not intentional, people who are not like you get overlooked and left behind.
(i) Affinity bias
Affinity or ingroup bias is a tendency or preference for people like ourselves. Studies show that, in general, people extend not only greater trust, but also greater positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members (people like us) compared with outgroup members (people with characteristics and backgrounds different to our own). Our preference for people like ourselves also influences our judgments and treatment of others. We make more favourable assessments and confer greater benefits on people from our social group compared to out-group members. We are also more likely to attribute the successes of in-group members to favourable character traits while excusing their failures as the result of bad luck or external circumstances, whereas for out-group members, we attribute their successes to luck and their failures to innate character flaws. We are also quicker to condemn the failures and non-conforming behaviour of out-group members compared to in-group members. Affinity bias manifests not only as a preference for ingroup members, but it may also manifest as an aversive tendency towards outgroup members. For example, we are more likely to withhold praise or rewards from outgroup members.
In terms of employment, affinity bias can compel people to favour those who are most similar to themselves, thereby leading to a tendency for leaders, people managers, or recruiting managers to hire, promote, or otherwise esteem those who mirror attributes or qualities that align with their own. Affinity bias can also lead us to actively solicit, pay greater attention to, and to favour the contributions of ingroup members over outgroup members. We are also more likely to mentor or sponsor ingroup members compared with outgroup members.
This preference for people like ourselves is largely instinctive and unconscious. Although we believe we are making objective assessments of merit and treating people fairly, hidden preferences for people like ourselves can cause us to support the development and career progression of some people over others without us even knowing we are doing so. When we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined, or promoted, who we chose to develop, who we see as a confidante or as a suitable mentee, or whose ideas we give consideration to, we may be adding our own subliminal and emotional criteria to that decision. Criteria we might not even be aware of and which may have no basis in facts.
We are good at justifying our biases. Studies show that we exhibit a systematic tendency to claim that the strengths of ingroup candidates are more important indicators of future performance than the strengths of candidates with backgrounds different to our own.
When individuals interact with one another, we make rapid judgments based on deeply embedded stereotypes.
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. Role stereotypes are often linked to group membership. The predominant stereotype for a leader is middle-aged, heterosexual, White male. The predominant stereotype for nurse is female.
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. Like affinity bias, stereotypes operate beneath our level of consciousness, influencing our decisions in ways in which we are not aware and most likely would deny.
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, for example, we have a good chance of making him happy if we give them a beer and a frankfurt! 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.
Stereotypes are problematic because they are socially-constructed, arbitrary, and frequently invalid. They are not an accurate representation of any individual member of that social group. Consider gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes prescribe differences in traits, competencies, and motivations between men and women. Research, however, has found that, in reality, men and women are more alike than gender stereotypes prescribe. A team of researchers recently conducted a meta-synthesis of more than 100 meta-analyses of gender differences (a study of studies of studies of gender differences). Combined, the studies they aggregated included more than 12 million men and women. Their report, published in American Psychologist, identified only 10 psychological attributes in which there was a significant gap between genders. Some of these characteristics fell in line with stereotypes. For example, men were more aggressive while women had a closer attachment to peers. Conversely, they found an almost 80 percent overlap between the genders for more than 75 percent of psychological characteristics, such as risk-taking, occupational stress, and morality. Simply put, gender differences are not so profound as John Gray, from the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus fame, suggests. Physically, yes. But, psychologically, no.
Although gender stereotypes are largely invalid, they influence our assessments of suitability for and competence regarding particular tasks and roles. Because gender stereotypes prescribe women as collaborative and nurturing whereas men are competitive and independent, for example, women are commonly perceived to be more suited for teamwork or for support or service roles requiring strong interpersonal skill whereas men are perceived to be a better fit for sales roles and other roles requiring higher levels of initiative, independence, and assertiveness. These assumptions are mirrored in the gender composition of leadership teams. Globally, women leaders achieve higher levels of representation in supporting roles compared with revenue-generating roles. The majority of women in senior management are human resources directors (23 percent) and chief financial officers (21 percent). Just 12 percent of chief executive officers are women and women represent only 6 percent of executive sales directors.
Similar biases have been shown in performance feedback. Researchers from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research reviewed hundreds of performance reviews from four unnamed technology and professional services companies. The results of their study showed that women and men receive divergent performance feedback at work that align with gender stereotypes of men as driven, ambitious, visionary and successful and women as nurturing, communal and collaborative. The results held up irrespective of the gender of the assessor. Women were described as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” nearly twice as often as men, and women’s reviews had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements. Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence, and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.” Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise and vision. More recently, a large scale study conducted in on subjective terms used in the performance evaluations of 81,000 individuals reported similar gender differences in the assignment of leadership attributes. While men were more often assigned attributes such as analytical, competent, athletic and dependable, women were more often assigned compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic and organised.
Numerous other studies also demonstrate a consistent or systemic devaluing of women relative to men in professional settings, even by individuals who explicitly endorse egalitarian beliefs and reject sexism:
- Staff in a science faculty rated male applicants for a laboratory manager as more competent than equally qualified female candidates and chose a higher starting salary for male candidates. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) departments are just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.
- In post-doctoral fellowships, women had to be 250 percent more productive (e.g. published journal articles) to be rated at the same level of competence as men.
- Women’s software change recommendations accepted more often than men’s when gender is not identified. But when a woman’s gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often.
- In hiring for major orchestras, women’s hiring outcomes increased greatly when using screens.
Other studies find that women, and particularly women of colour, do more office housework. One study found that women were 29 percent more likely than white men to report doing more office housework than their colleagues. Office housework refers to administrative or menial tasks or assignments that don’t improve one’s chances of success in the organisation. Examples include: getting the coffee; cleaning up; taking meeting notes; scheduling meetings; procuring a meeting room; planning social activities; buying group gifts; ordering lunch; serving on committees not directly linked to revenue (e.g. diversity committee). A study of academia found that female professors do more committee service work and less research than male professors. Office housework can be compared with glamour work—stretch assignments that develop new skills and increase upward visibility, and therefore promotion success. Examples of glamour work include working on a project for a major client, building a new team or business, representing the company by speaking at industry events. Women of color are 30-35 percent less likely than white men to report having equal access to glamour assignments; white women are 18-20 percent less likely. Researchers attribute the gap to gender stereotypes that dictate women should be helpful and communal. Prescriptive stereotypes also operate by race. Further, women risk backlash if they don’t take on office housework such as “She’s just not a team player” or “She thinks highly of herself, doesn’t she?”.Stereotypes prescribe standards of behaviour and individuals who breach those standards are penalised.
Another prescriptive stereotype backlash is the assertiveness double-bind. Studies show that when women exhibit counter-stereotypical traits commonly associated with leadership such as assertiveness, they are less-liked when compared with men exhibiting the same traits. One study showed women’s perceived deserved compensation dropped by 35 percent, twice as much as men’s dropped when equally aggressive in workplace communication. The Stanford study above reported women receives 2.5 times the amount of feedback men do about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting.” Women receive negative personality criticism, such as being called bossy or told to “watch their tone” in around 75 percent of performance reviews. Men, on the other hand, rarely do. Women are described as being “abrasive” far more often than men.
Two American professors ran a study of students using the real-life case of Heidi Roizen, a successful venture capitalist. The students were divided into two groups and asked to read and rate the case, however, one of the groups got a copy that had the name changed to ‘Howard’. When polling the students after reading the case, the professors found that while students found Heidi and Howard equally competent, Howard was seen as appealing and Heidi as selfish. When this experiment was rerun in 2013, with the names Kathryn and Martin, participants liked Kathryn more but trusted her less, than Martin. Similarly, a 2011 study of over 60,000 people found that while 54% of participants claimed to have no preference for their boss’ gender, the remaining 46 percent preferred male to female bosses by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. The authors of this study found that of those preferring a male boss, reasons given often focused on negative attributes of female bosses, and displayed beliefs in women’s incompetence for leadership. Catalyst concludes women leaders are judged as either competent or likable, but rarely both.
Gender also plays a role in how we judge mistakes made by individuals in professional settings. Females in traditionally masculine roles are judged more harshly and penalised more significantly for their mistakes compared with men. The reverse is true for traditionally feminine roles. Participants were presented with a fictional news story about a police chief in a major city preparing for a big protest rally. Several hours in, the protest got out of hand and the chief dispatched squad cars. The chief didn’t send enough officers, and twenty-five people were seriously injured. The researchers discovered that when a male police chief found himself with twenty-five injured civilians, his rating as an effective chief dropped by roughly 10 percent. However, when the police chief making the same mistake was female, her ratings dropped by almost 30 percent. Further, the participants expressed that the female police chief should be demoted, whereas the male chief should not be. The researchers sought to replicate their findings in additional studies, reporting similar gender disparities in the penalties judged appropriate for mistakes made by male and female CEOs of an engineering firm and for a male and female chief judge of a supreme court. The researchers then sought to explore whether the reverse was true—would a man occupying a traditionally female role be judged more harshly for a mistake than a woman making the same mistake in that role? They confirmed this to be true. Male presidents of a women’s college were found to be judged more harshly for an error of poor judgment than female presidents of a women’s college.
Gender stereotypes also influence our assessments of mothers and fathers. Shelley Correll, Professor of Sociology at Cornell University, sent out hundreds of fake CVs to prospective employers. The CVs were identical except for two things. First, half of them had a man’s name and half of them a woman’s. Second, half the CVs — both the men and the women’s — included a line that implied they were a parent. That line was something like being the coach of an under 10s soccer team or a member of the Parents and Friends Committee. The results highlighted a significant baby penalty for women, but a baby bonus for men. Women with children were 50 percent less likely to get a response from an employer. Men with children were slightly more likely than any other applicant to get a call back for an interview. When Correll reproduced a similar experiment in laboratory settings, mothers were offered salaries of around $11,000 less than women without children. Fathers were offered salaries of around $2000 more. The results of Correll’s study imply that when a woman has a baby, it is assumed she will be less reliable, less committed, and less effective as an employee. When a man has a family, however, it is assumed he is more responsible, more stable, and more dependable at work. Researchers describe maternal wall bias as a set of negative assumptions about mothers’ competence and commitment. After having a child, mothers come back to work to find that their best projects and clients have been reassigned to colleagues. One study found a quarter of the women who’d taken maternity leave said they’d been discriminated against upon return to work. Some said they’d been put on the ‘mummy track’.
Similar to gender stereotypes, cultural stereotypes also interfere with fair and objective assessment. In one study, participants were given a description of a software engineer. For half of the participants, the engineer was described as an Asian American male. For the other half of the participants, the engineer was described as a Caucasian American male. The participants were then asked to rate the technical competency and the leadership potential of the employee. The results showed that Asian Americans were rated on average at a higher level of technical competency than the Caucasian American, whereas the Caucasian American male received higher scores than the Asian American male for leadership potential. Similar to studies on gender bias, this exercise demonstrates how group stereotypes interact with role stereotypes to influence assessments of competency. An Asian cultural stereotype of technical superiority interacted with the role stereotype of Engineer to positively influence assessments of technical competence. On the flip-side, Asian cultural stereotypes of modesty, indirect communication, and avoidance of conflict negatively interacted with leader stereotypes. However, we know that stereotypes are often false and at best arbitrary. Even when they may reflect a group norm, such as cultural values or behavioural norms, they cannot predict with certainty how any particular individual will perform, think or behave. Cultural stereotypes likely contribute to the ‘bamboo ceiling’ faced by individuals of Asian descent in achieving greater leadership representation in Western contexts. A 2011 study by the Center for Talent Innovation reported that Asian Americans account for just 1.4 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9 per cent of corporate officers overall despite making up 5 per cent of the population and constituting 18 per cent of the student body at Harvard and 24 per cent at Stanford. The study reported 63 per cent of Asian men feel stalled in their careers. Similar limitations to achieving leadership face individuals of Asian descent in Australia.
Stereotypes influence how we feel about and respond to others. When our stereotypes are negative or biased, they can manifest as prejudice and discrimination towards members of different social groups. Prejudice refers to our feelings or attitudes towards a group and its members. Discrimination refers to differential—usually understood to be unfair or negative—treatment towards members of a particular group of people. If we hold negative stereotypes towards members of particular groups, we might overlook members in promotion or hiring decisions, or might act in a hostile manner towards individuals belonging to those groups. Regarding cultural and racial bias, Australian National University researchers sent out 4000 fake job applications to employers advertising on the internet for entry-level hospitality, data entry, customer service and sales jobs, changing only the racial origin of the supposed applicants’ names. The researchers reported:
- A foreign or indigenous-sounding name gives people less chance of landing a job in Australia, unless your name sounds Italian and you’re in Melbourne.
- Applicants with Chinese names fared the worst, having only a one-in-five chance of getting asked in for interviews, compared to applicants with Anglo-Saxon names whose chances exceeded one-in-three.
- Typically, a Chinese-named applicant would need to put in 68 per cent more applications than an Anglo-named applicant to get the same number of calls back. A Middle Eastern-named applicant needed 64 per cent more, an indigenous-named applicant 35 per cent more and an Italian-named applicant 12 per cent more.
Additional examples of bias at work linked to negative group stereotypes include:
- Intergenerational bias: Most age discrimination complaints are 45 yrs and 30 percent of recruiters are given age ‘cap’ assignments. Four in ten Australian companies said they avoided hiring people over 55 years. Older people are commonly portrayed by the Australian media as forgetful, fragile, frail, vulnerable, sick, grumpy, slow, helpless and useless. Millennials also suffer from negative stereotyping. Boston Consulting Group asked U.S. Millennials and non-Millennials which words best describe the Millennial generation. While Millennials’ perceptions of themselves were generally favorable, non-Millennials tend to view them far less kindly, often referring to them as “spoiled,” “lazy,” or “entitled.”
- LGBTI+ bias: While there are increasingly positive portrayals of LGBTI+ characters on film, non-heterosexual characters have long been depicted on screen in stereotypically comic roles, or as villains or deviants, propagating negative stereotypes and stigma against individuals identifying as LGBTI+. Listing work with LGBT organisations on your CV makes you between 5 and 23 percent less likely to be called for an interview, even if you are more qualified than other applicants. A survey by the University of Melbourne revealed in 2015 that gay men earn a “gay pay gap” of around 20 percent less than heterosexual men, whereas lesbians earn a “lesbian wage premium” of around 33-40 percent more than straight women, largely due to additional hours worked. However, the gender pay gap still applies—gay men still earn, on average, more than women of any sexuality.
- Disability bias: Negative stereotypes that prescribe people with a disability as weak or victims and entrenched stigma surrounding mental illness contribute to markedly higher unemployment rates for people with a disability compared with people without a disability. AND statistics report over 2.1 million Australians of working age (15 – 64 years) have some form of disability and that those individuals have both lower participation (53%) and higher unemployment rates (9.4%) than people without disability (83% and 4.9% respectively). Australian employment rates for persons with a disability are consistent with other developed nations. In developing countries, those rates worsen considerably, with 80% to 90% of people with disability of working age being unemployed. In Australia, disability discrimination accounts for the highest volume of complaints across the board to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
- Religious bias: A 2017 study conducted by All Together Now and the University of Technology Sydney found that Muslims were mentioned in more than half of the opinion pieces published by the four most-watched current affairs TV programs, and the four most-read newspapers nationally, as determined by ratings agencies. Further, 63% of reports about Muslims were framed negatively. The negative reports showed that, over the six-month sample period, Muslims were often conflated with terrorism, thereby fuelling a stereotype that ‘Muslims are terrorists’. Muslim Australians, especially younger Muslims, are less likely to be employed. In addition, they are also underrepresented in high-status professional occupations and overrepresented in other occupational categories, which tend to have lower status.
- Refugee and immigrant bias: In a court case, Australia Post and one of its employees were ordered to pay $40,000 in compensation to a contractor who was subjected to a series of racial taunts and told to, “Go home to Sri Lanka by boat.”
(iii) Stereotype threat
Stereotype threat refers to the risk of conforming to a negative stereotype. Studies show that stereotype threat can impair task performance. For example, researchers showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardised tests than White students when their race was emphasised. When race was not emphasised, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. That experiment, together with other similar studies, showed that performance is harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. Similar performance effects have been shown for women compared with men regarding science or maths ability. Not only is performance at risk, but stereotype threat is also associated with disengagement, self-defeating behaviours, and altered professional aspirations. Stereotype threat is more likely to be invoked when an individual becomes aware of the stereotype because the stereotype or their membership of a stereotyped group is highlighted or because they are the only member of that group present in a given situation. For example, highlighting to a woman that she is the only female present in a meeting can invoke stereotype threat.
(iv) Internalised bias and self-fulfilling prophecies
Because stereotypes form passively without conscious thought, they can exist intragroup as well as intergroup. That is, we can come to internalise bias–to accept the messages that society tells us about our roles, worth, strengths, and limitations as true and valid. In turn, internalised bias affects our choices and behaviours. Hewlett-Packard discovered this several years ago when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. In contrast, men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in subsequent similar studies, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Women hold back from taking career risks more than men.
Women, on average, experience lower levels of professional confidence compared with men. The women who attend my workshops share common stories of being hesitant to speak up at work, of their reluctance to put themselves forward for promotions or stretch assignments, of their worry that they will fail, of their insecurities regarding being not ‘good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, strong enough’. The gender confidence gap has detrimental effects on women’s careers. Confidence is often equated with competence, and this is particularly true for leadership roles. When women display lower levels of confidence compared with men, they can be passed over for promotion on concerns that they will not be effective influencers, both inside and outside the organisation. A lack of confidence may also prevent women from stepping outside their comfort zones and taking steps to develop new skills and relationships, which can leave them trailing behind men. While the confidence gap cannot account for the entire gender gap at leadership, there is little doubt that it contributes to the challenge of building a gender-balanced executive team. Organisations seeking to realise the competitive benefits of gender diverse leadership are therefore interested in solutions for boosting the confidence of their female staff. Women are encouraged by their employers to attend confidence-building workshops or are coached by their male managers to be more confident.
However, contrary to gender stereotypes, women do not enter the workforce less confident than men. Indeed, researchers have shown that women are not innately less confident than men. There is no statistically significant difference in confidence (albeit during adolescence) between the genders, yet in professional settings, a significance confidence gap appears between the genders within 2-5 years of women joining the workforce. Nearly half of all new female employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 per cent still hold that ambition; this compares with 34 percent of men who begin their careers with aspirations that they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience. The marked drop in female aspiration is matched by a fall in professional confidence whereas men experience a much smaller fall in confidence over the same period. Something happens in professional settings that has a relatively greater depletive effect on the self-confidence of women compared with men.
Exploring to the causes behind the decline in professional confidence and ambition of women, Bain found a 39 percent decline between new and experienced women in feeling that they fit in in terms of meeting typical stereotypes of success within the company, vs. 23 percent decline for men. Survey responses from experienced women indicated that the dearth of women in upper management to serve as role models hampered progress toward gender parity. Other studies show that women are rated at lower levels of competence compared with men, women receive more negative subjective assessments in performance appraisals, women are interrupted more than men, women’s ideas are often attributed to men, the mistakes of women are penalised more harshly than mistakes made by men, women are more likely to experience harassment at work compared with men, and women are discriminated against in employment more than men. We are not suggesting that men get it easy at work, but they do get it easier and the extra scrutiny, criticism, and disrespect experienced by women carry a heavier toll. While not all workplace bias is blatant or intentional, even subtle slights, over time, can devalue and discourage women.
Internalised bias can also manifest as a tendency for women to self-select into traditionally ‘feminised’ roles such as Human Resources or Nursing and also as an deep-seated belief and acceptance that women are the primary care-giver and homemaker and that their own careers come second to the careers of their male partners, whose primary responsibilities lie outside of the home.
(v) Cultural and language barriers
Cultural blind spots occur when we fail to attribute differences in our behaviours and thoughts to different cultural schemas. Our cultural learnings are repeated so frequently that they become automatic. Because of this, we are not consciously aware of our cultural schemas and how and when they are influencing our responses. Automaticity is helpful in our own cultural environment but problematic in a new culture. Our automatic assumptions and responses can lead us to misinterpret the intentions or motives of our partners. Cultural blind spots can cause frustration, anger, helplessness, or hostility and are linked to prejudice, bias, and discrimination.
Take, for example, conflict management. The way that members of different cultures resolve conflict varies markedly across the world. At one extreme, in many Western English-speaking nations including the United States or Australia, conflict is resolved through a competitive, win-loose approach. Under this approach, the more forceful, aggressive, dominant party wins an argument. In competitive work settings, assertiveness is valued and individuals who enthusiastically engage in workplace debate and combative brainstorming sessions are rated at high levels of competence.
At the other extreme, in many countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, conflict is resolved through a cooperative, win-win approach. A cooperative approach to conflict resolution involves integrating contrasting viewpoints and perspectives to reach a solution that works for each party. Sometimes, in an attempt to maintain social harmony, conflict is avoided altogether in those contexts. Workers with a cooperative orientation to conflict management working in competitive workplaces may be perceived as weak, submissive, or lacking initiative by managers and colleagues from the dominant cultural group. Their reluctance to enter into workplace debate, challenge colleagues and superiors, or contribute to group discussions may result in lower ratings of competency and leadership potential than members of the dominant group.
Cultural variations in management style (participative vs. directive), the formation of trust (task vs. relationship), decision-making (individual, top-down, consultative), the giving of feedback (direct vs. indirect), meeting etiquette (decision-making vs. discussion), problem-solving (analytical vs. holistic) and communication (e.g. silence means agreement vs. silence means disagreement) are some other examples of cultural differences in work patterns that can negatively impact performance appraisals and promotion opportunities.
Language and accent barriers can also stigmatise and penalise non-native speakers. Non-native speakers may lack oral confidence and be hesitant to contribute, particularly in public settings. Consequently, native-speaking group members might dominate discussions and achieve higher levels of visibility. Studies show non-native speakers are judged at lower levels of competence and are less likely to be recommended for management positions compared with native speakers. Other studies report people are less likely to believe factual information when it is delivered by someone whose accent is different than the dominant accent, even when alerted to the phenomenon.
(vi) Privilege and power
Privilege refers to unearned benefits or advantages that confer to some individuals because of their membership of a more powerful or dominant group in society. Privilege can be invisible to those who have it but its effect is felt by those without. Individuals from lesser-privileged groups often engage in active strategies to cover or mask their difference in an attempt to side-step the disadvantages associated with their lower status and power. Heterosexual privilege, for example, can result in LGBTI+ people covering their sexuality in the workplace to avoid harassment, discrimination, and prejudice. Although covering might help the individual avoid the gay-pay gap (refer above) or other forms of discrimination and prejudice, covering comes at a personal cost to well-being and self-esteem and does not stop the occurrence of homophobic slurs in the workplace that diminish and devalue LGBTI+ people.
Privilege comes in many forms ranging from what family situation or race you were born into to how much money you make to what university you attend. Research in the US has shown that elite firms focus almost entirely on recruiting candidates from Ivy League schools. In an interesting twist, new research shows that privilege is less relevant for the advancement of women compared with men. In particular, social class advantage does not improve a woman’s chances of securing a job, but it might even hurt her career prospects. Although class privilege offers access to elite educations and influential networks, when women are well-qualified, having a high-class background appears to give them no additional advantage, as it does for men. Researchers sent fake résumés to more than 300 of the most exclusive law firms in the United States, varying résumé details to see which ones attracted employers’ interest. Academic and professional experiences were identical, but variations in extracurricular activities and achievements signaled their level of privilege. For example, did the applicant win a university athletic award or a university athletic award for students on financial aid? Privileged applicants listed elitist sports and upper-class interests like polo, sailing, and classical music. Less-privileged applicants preferred country music and track-and-field sports. The results showed privileged men had a call-back rate of 16 percent, which was more than four times the rate for the privileged woman, less-privileged women, and less-privileged men combined. Further, higher social class benefited men in the hiring process, but penalised women. In a further study, the researchers found that privileged women were viewed as being the least committed to their careers because of concerns that they would soon leave their careers to become stay-at-home mothers. The women were described as lawyers who were secretly “looking for a husband” or “biding time” before leaving their careers altogether. On the other hand, lower-class women were viewed as “hungry,” and were predicted to work hard for the money because they had “law-school debt to pay” and “mouths to feed.” Privilege, however, favoured White men over people of colour because they were perceived to be a better cultural fit.
In the workplace, privilege and power intersect to disadvantage women and other minority groups. Sexual harassment is an issue of gendered inequalities between women and men, with the latter in positions of power due to the ‘privilege’ of being heterosexual men. An ABC News–Washington Post poll found that a quarter of American women had experienced unwanted sexual advances by a boss or a boss-like figure and may have feared the loss of their job if they reported the harassment. In Australia, an Australian Human Rights Commission survey of 10,000 Australians titled ‘Everyone’s Business: 2018 Sexual Harassment Survey’, reported that while 33 percent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years, only 17% made a formal complaint to their employer. Those statistics imply concerns exist regarding the effectiveness of grievance procedures with respect to disciplinary action, confidentiality, and backlash.
Women and minority groups also experience lower access to informal and political networks in organisations and have fewer mentors and sponsors compared with men, resulting in reduced access to information and less visibility to those who have power over their careers. Concerns have been raised about the reduced tendency for men to mentor women in the fall-out of #MeToo. Since #MeToo, the number of men who are uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled. Also, a lack of access to informal social bonding presents an obstacle to advancement for women in organisations.
(vii) Institutionalised bias
Institutionalised bias refers to work premises, tools and equipment, and processes and practices that systematically favour some groups over others and are part of the fabric of an organisation. Examples include:
- Inflexible work schedules and locations
- Graduate recruitment programs or internships that are limited to select universities
- Unstructured interviews that allow bias to influence assessment
- Hiring processes based heavily on interview performance when unrelated to role tasks (biased against individuals with autism spectrum disorder, mental illness or introverts)
- High workloads and fast-paced work cultures that present challenges for individuals with a disability including mental illness or physical illnesses requiring medical attention or restricting activity
- Premises that not accessible to individuals with mobility restrictions such as persons that use a wheelchair
- Electronic communications that are not accessible
- Biased performance criteria (e.g. performance indicators that align with gender stereotypes or cultural norms)
- Lack of role models (you can’t be what you can’t see)
- Restrictive leave policies (e.g. parental leave policies that distinguish between primary and secondary carer, no accommodation for religious leave outside of public holiday leave)
- Meetings that are scheduled before 10 am or after 3 pm (disadvantage parents with school-aged children)
- Applicant screening based on demographic characteristics such as age, educational background, appearance
- Tap-on-the-shoulder promotions
- Strict dress codes
- Learning and development opportunities that are not offered to remote workers
- Premises that do not allow for the practice of religious observances
- Team-bonding exercises or social activities that do not recognise different abilities or personalities
- Health-care plans and other benefits that are not accessible to contractor staff, even when long tenured
- Inequitable allocation of office housework as compared with glamour work (refer above)
- Catering that does not accommodate for dietary restrictions
- Gender binary toilets
- Pay and role inequity (e.g. gender, ethnic, linguistic division across roles and rank)
- Overreliance on informal communication channels
Strategies for building fairer workplaces
Strategies that employers can take manage and eliminate bias and to develop fairer workplaces include:
- Inclusive recruitment practices—e.g. inclusive job advertisements, strengthening employer brand for diverse talent, outreach programs, partnering with specialist recruitment agencies, blind CV’s, school placements and internships for diverse talent pipelines
- Fair assessment and selection—e.g. objective assessment such as behavioural-based interviewing, structured interviews and work samples, interview scorecards, panels interviews, unconscious bias training, allowing for reasonable accommodations, individual assessment before panel moderation, actively manage bias and challenge assumptions
- Equitable development—e.g. inclusive leadership training, formal career planning, formal mentoring and sponsorship, access to role models
- Fair appraisal and promotion—e.g. objective performance frameworks, building diversity into succession planning, using diverse panels in moderation, 360 reviews, timely feedback, no forced rankings.
- Metrics—e.g. tracking diversity data at each stage of the employee life-cycle to identify risk areas, track the success of initiatives, and take corrective action where required
- Managing backlash—e.g. well-defined business case, coaching middle-management, communications plan
In next month’s newsletter, we take a deep-dive into the solutions to building fairer workplaces listed above as well as other solutions that level the playing field for diverse talent. If you would like to receive our April newsletter direct to your inbox, we warmly welcome your registration at this link.
- Unconscious Bias and Mindful Inclusion
- Eliminating Bias in Recruitment and Selection
- Inclusive Leadership Training
- Peer Coaching Circles for Inclusive Leadership
- Developing Psychological Safety
- Cultural Intelligence & Inclusion
- Engaging Men in Gender Equality
- Bite-Sized Diversity and Inclusion Workshops
- Understanding inclusion: What needs to change for individuals to bring their whole selves to work?
- Inclusion fundamentals: Fostering respect in diverse settings
- Inclusion fundamentals: Cultivating belonging in diverse settings
- Inclusion fundamentals: Empowering diverse talent
- A-ha activities for unconscious bias training
- The SPACE2 model of mindful inclusion: Six proven strategies for managing unconscious bias
- Mind your micro-biases: Subtle slights that exclude
- Gender bias at work: Competence evaluation bias and the argument for targets
- Gender bias at work: Gendered feedback
- Gender bias at work: The assertiveness double-bind
- Cultural diversity at leadership: Australia’s bamboo ceiling
- Ingroup bias: Preferring people like ourselves
- The lived experience of inclusion
- Unconscious bias training activities
- Workplaces that temper unconscious bias: Part one of two
- Fighting hidden bias at work: Part two of two
- Ways to reduce unconscious bias at work
- Understanding and overriding unconscious bias
- Understanding unconscious bias: Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination
- Nudging bias out of your workplace: Learnings from social psychology
- “Just tell me what to do”: Useful frameworks for thinking about inclusive leadership
- Unconscious bias: Putting more rungs on the ladder
- Having trouble engaging men in gender diversity: Try these tips