The one thing women can do to thwart gender bias at work


In a new study by VitalSmarts, a workplace training and consultancy firm, researchers found that a woman who asserted her opinion at work forcefully was not only perceived as less competent but also as less valuable than an equally assertive male counterpart. Their findings shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to news on gender politics lately — there’s a long and well-documented string of research that supports the notion that women get penalized when they fail to embody certain gender stereotypes. But VitalSmarts’ study goes a step further, showing not only how much gender bias can cost women but also experimenting with simple strategies women can use to thwart it.

In one part of their study, VitalSmarts asked nearly 5,000 participants to watch a video of either a female or male actor who was described as a potential peer. Both actors were white, similar in age and scored almost equally on an attractiveness scale. They were given the same script to follow, in which they would disagree with a point made by a co-worker with varying degrees of force (neutral, mild, moderate, very forceful). Then, viewers ranked the actors based on their competency, status, and overall value (e.g. what salary they might deserve).

Based on the scores they gave the actors, viewers were less forgiving of the woman’s temper than the man’s. The more forceful the woman was in her dissent, the less competent and valuable viewers perceived her to be. When the female actor came across as even-keeled, viewers said she deserved a salary of $106,516. That number fell to $91,428 when she came across as very forceful — raising her voice, threatening to make workers reapply for their jobs. In the end, that cost her about $15,000 or 14%. It's worth noting that the male actor was also penalized for coming across too forcefully, but his compensation fell by just 6%, from $97,456 to $90,909.  (To see a demo of the video that the viewers watched, check out the video below).  “Increasing the forcefulness of the statement also increased the threat level,” the study says. “People who are passionate are more likely to act, and are more likely to act in ways that harm others. It makes sense that the observers in this study felt less safe.”

When you consider who the study participants were, the overall results were pretty troubling. VitalSmarts sent the study to a random sample of 100,000 of their 400,000 subscribers (about 11,000, a mix of both male and female, chose to participate). The vast majority of their subscribers are people who work in human resources – the very people whose biases have the potential to harm workers the most.

“The soil we have right now [in today’s workplaces] is toxic in many ways,” says David Maxfield, who led the study. “In the meantime, we’ve got seeds — individual women — who are trying to succeed in this hostile environment.”

In another scenario the researchers tested, the man and woman were both introduced as someone who would be the viewer's boss, rather than their peer. In this case, speaking in a threatening and forceful tone resulted in a significant pay cut for both the man and the woman — viewers who watched them act forcefully estimated their value (salary) 30% lower than viewers who watched them speak in a neutral tone. David Maxfield, who led the study, says viewers likely reacted more dramatically in the "boss" scenario because of a higher perceived presence of threat — getting reamed by a superior is likely to feel more threatening than getting reamed by a peer who doesn't possess any hiring or firing power.

What can you do to stave off biases?

The negative consequences of unconscious biases have long been studied, with past studies finding that women are more likely than men to be penalized (by both men and women) when they were perceived to be angry at work and that people with “black-sounding” names are less likely to get job interviews than those with “white-sounding” names. The list goes on. For those of us most likely to be on the receiving end of these biases — women, minorities, and people with disabilities — it’s easy to feel like no matter how talented, prepared, or qualified you are, the odds are stacked against you.

Maxfield and his team wanted to expand their study to explore different strategies that women might be able to use to stave off bias. In the second half of the study, they had the woman assert herself exactly the same as before but this time she framed her argument in three different ways. In the first framing test, she simply prepared people for what she was about to say: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly,” she said. Next, she framed her argument as a matter of her own personal values: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity,” she began. And lastly, the actor prefaced her remarks by bluntly pointing out the gender bias elephant in the room: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly,” she said.

All three framing strategies improved the way that viewers perceived the woman, but one stood out as the most effective: the third strategy, in which the woman acknowledged the risk of gender bias before presenting her argument. The actor's scores across all three categories (competency, value and status) improved by a collective 25% (this particular frame wasn’t tested out on the male actor). As for why it was so powerful, Maxfield says that by alerting people to their own potential biases, they were more likely to adjust their judgments. Starting her argument by talking about her values and interest in honesty was the second-most effective strategy, improving her scores by about 14%. Framing an assertive statement didn't just work for the woman – it actually had an even bigger effect on how viewers rated the male actor.

The chart below illustrates the positive impacts of the different framing strategies. (VitalSmarts)

Despite the success the woman had in alerting her peers to their potential biases, Maxfield questions whether this strategy would work on the long-run. If taken the wrong way, it could have a boomerang effect, inciting defensiveness rather than empathy. “It could be seen as ‘playing a card, in this case the ‘gender card’,” he says. “Our concern is that it may create short-term benefits, but damage a user’s reputation. We wouldn’t want to encourage women to use a strategy that felt manipulative or injured their reputations over the long term.”

Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor who studies gender bias at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was not involved in VitalSmarts’ study and says she agrees with Maxfield on that point. She noted that the study tested this particular framing strategy in only one type of scenario, in which a woman who was already hired was disagreeing with her colleagues. It would play out much differently in a job interview setting. “My hunch is people would not want to hire somebody who is calling them out … directly saying ‘don’t be biased against me,’” Dasgupta says.

Using the "value" strategy is more likely to work in the long-run, she says: "It's more subtle. It provides an explanation for the assertiveness, but it doesn't tell the person on the receiving end 'don't be biased agaisnt me because I’m saying something that doesn’t fit the stereotype.'"

Putting the onus where it belongs

VitalSmarts’ study might provide some solace to workers who feel powerless to protect themselves against others’ biases. But it's hard not to bristle at the notion that it’s up to the victims of bias to inoculate themselves against it. To truly resolve gender bias in the workplace, business leaders have an important role to play, too, Maxfield says. “It would be a huge mistake if we say the entire solution has to be on the backs of women, minorities and other groups that suffer from biases,” he says.  

Some companies are trying to counteract biases in the workplace in novel ways. Last week Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the company’s new bias training program. Silicon Valley has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. At Facebook, women make up just 16% of the company’s tech-focused workforce. Black and Hispanic workers hold less than 6% of tech jobs at the company.  “One of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have,” Sandberg wrote.  In another bid to reduce gender bias, in April, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao banned salary negotiations for entry level positions to level the playing field for women, who studies have shown are more likely to be judged harshly at the negotiating table.

Harvard researchers created a special test (called the Implicit Association Test or IAT) that anyone can take to see how likely they are to be biased. So far more than 2.5 million people have taken a stab at the test, and the results have been overwhelming: The vast majority of test-takers had some type of unconscious bias, including biases against overweight people, disabled people, women, minorities, and non-Americans. We should note that the IAT isn’t meant to be used as an individual litmus test for bias -- rather, for use by researchers studying wide swaths of people to find trends. However, it's still a nice reminder that just about everyone, no matter how open-minded we like to think we are, is susceptible to some type of bias.

Dasgupta pointed out several ways in which managers can prevent biases from adversely impacting the hiring process. She suggests blindly reviewing applications before agreeing to schedule interviews. By blocking out the names of applicants, you can protect against gender bias based on names and you are evaluating people based solely on job skills. Of course, it becomes harder to be gender-blind when a person is sitting right in front of you in an interview, so she recommends putting together a diverse hiring committee or soliciting input from several other managers before making a final decision. “Studies show that diverse teams actually make better decisions,” she says. And finally, before managers even begin to review job candidates, they should come up with a clear list of qualities they are looking for in an employee. “This process almost completely reduces bias,” she says.

Have you had to overcome gender bias at work? We'd like to hear from you: