Dr. Mikki Hebl began her collegiate career pursuing pre-med but was so inspired by female pioneers like Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who advocate for the reduction of gender and other social inequities, that she chose to pursue a different path of scientific study — one of understanding and changing social bias. She eventually pursued a career in Industrial Organizational Psychology, also referred to as the 'psychology of the workplace'. Today, Mikki Hebl is herself a pioneer. She and her team at Rice University produce and analyze studies that become the basis for scientific evidence that educates businesses to help them define and set new norms.
Mixing a necessary dose of reality with humor, Dr. Hebl presented attendees of this year’s Emerson Global Users’ Exchange with fact-based research on gender and race biases based on experiments with finely-tuned control elements. The examples she shared were not based on correlational and anecdotal surmising but gathered from rigorously-conducted field studies — which was exactly what our audience of 450+ engineers and STEM aficionados needed.
Mikki began her presentation with a statistic that served as wake-up call for most of the audience (which was approximately 50% male). According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is ranked 51st of 172 developed countries in terms of gender equity. That’s right, women in the U.S. rank FIFTY-FIRST in a global index which measures 1) economic participation and opportunity, 2) educational attainment, 3) health and survival, and 4) political empowerment.
For purposes of this blog, we’ll concentrate on gender bias and the ways overt and subtle biases act as gatekeepers for women in the workplace. Spoiler alert: even in the year 2019, we’ve still got A LOT of work to do. The good news is that businesses (and individuals) have the power to not only solve instances of gender discrimination, but to set and change entire cultural norms.
Here are few ways that biases more overtly occur against women appear in the workplace:
Subtle bias is much more common in the workplace and can be even more detrimental to those effected. One of these effects stems from the very human fact that we try to understand why people treat us the way they do. For example, if a female employee is told by her boss that she will not be given a challenging assignment because “women are not suited to handle that type of pressure,” it’s relatively clear that this is an instance of overt bias. However, if the boss tells the female employee that he “doesn’t believe she is ready for this kind of pressure,” the reason is less clear. Is it because she is a woman? Or is the boss rightfully concerned, having the best interests of the employee at heart? What often make this type of encounter more detrimental is the time spent ruminating and trying to figure out if the latter situation is a case of gender discrimination. And the longer the employee spends trying to decipher the intent, the more cognitive and emotional resources she (or he) will use.
But remember the good news I mentioned earlier? We have the power to not only solve overt and subtle instances of gender discrimination, but to set and change entire cultural norms. A powerful example is how businesses have helped ‘mainstream’ those who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). Beginning in the 90’s, business began to offer spousal benefits to those in same-sex relationships. Today, 59% of Fortune 500, 85% of Fortune 100, and 90% of Fortune 50 companies offer same-sex domestic partner benefits. Although no formal legislation (e.g. ENDA) has ever been passed, organizations themselves helped establish social norms that include greater societal acceptance of LGBT relationships and people. What happens in the workplace is backed by financial investments and this drives behavior that can help normalize gender, ethnicity or in this case, sexual stigmas.
Individuals, especially those in hiring roles, can also help change workplace and eventually, cultural norms. Set an individual, behavioral goal. When behaviors change, attitudes (yours and those around you) change. Want a relatively-easy starting point? Ask recruiters to source a proportionate number of qualified female applicants and interview more women for available roles. Why? A notable HBR study found that, “If there’s one woman in your candidate pool, there is statistically no chance she’ll be hired.” If that number increases to even two, the odds for female candidates greatly improve!
In 2018, 95% of CEOs were still men, proving that meritocracy is a false narrative and that organizations can’t afford to operate on this system alone. This stat also means that achieving gender equity cannot rest solely on the shoulders of women. We need men to represent the cause – on committees, in affinity groups and in leadership. If you’re motivated to help turn the dial, here’s a few ways you can start to put your learning into action:
Have you, your team or your organization made significant strides toward gender equity? Share your successes and tips for doing so in the replies below.