What you need to know:
- The study, A Cross-Industry Comparison of How Women Leaders Experience Gender Bias, interviewed 913 women in the United States who work in higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law, and healthcare.
- In these four sectors, women dominate with 53.5 per cent in law, 55.3 per cent in higher education, 63.8 per cent in faith-based nonprofits, and 77.6 per cent in healthcare.
A study conducted by three female gender experts on women leaders from four female-dominated industries found that women in those industries still experience gender bias.
While women experience overt discrimination in male-dominated industries like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the findings of research conducted by the three doctors – Amy Diehl, Leanne Dzumbinski and Amber Stephenson, who specialise in gender studies – show that gender bias is still prevalent in gender-balanced and female-dominated industries.
The study, A Cross-Industry Comparison of How Women Leaders Experience Gender Bias, interviewed 913 women in the United States who work in higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law, and healthcare. In these four sectors, women dominate with 53.5 per cent in law, 55.3 per cent in higher education, 63.8 per cent in faith-based nonprofits, and 77.6 per cent in healthcare.
Even though women are the majority, they were found to still experience a multitude of biases. One example is constrained communication, in which they have to be mindful when expressing authority and downplay their accomplishments. They reported lack of acknowledgement of their contributions and being interrupted by men when speaking. And even when women were well-represented, their workplace often still had a boys’ club mentality as decisions were made mostly by men.
The participants were at times on a glass cliff where they were held responsible for problems outside of their control and often lacked mentors and sponsors. Finally, some women found they had no other choice but to limit their aspirations because of personal obligations. In other words, their workplace was not supportive of combining work with family.
“It has been thought that once industries achieve gender balance, bias will decrease and gender gaps will close. Sometimes called the ‘add women and stir’ approach, people tend to think that having more women present is all that’s needed to promote change. But simply adding women into a workplace does not change the organisational structures and systems that benefit men more than women,’’ reads the report.
The experts also found that 30 different characteristics and qualities of a woman’s identity emerged as points of criticism, creating barriers to women’s success. Such criticisms related to facets of women’s identity such as race, age, parental status, attractiveness and physical ability.
Age was a consistent challenge for women leaders. Some of the respondents reported being considered too young to lead, while others indicated being too old hindered them from advancing. However, being middle-aged didn’t help women’s career prospects either. A physician shared in the report: “I am middle-aged, and men my age are seen as mature leaders and women my age as old.”
Parental status was also another point of criticism. A higher-education leader described how people assume she “can’t take on a bigger role ‘because of the kids,’” which made her feel that she needed “to work extra hard” to show that she could be both a dedicated mother and a leader.
On the other hand, a childless physician was expected to work harder than other female colleagues. Mothers were also bypassed for career opportunities, as happened to a single divorced lawyer who was the mother of preschoolers, “due to a perception by my male bosses that I cannot or should not handle [larger matters].”
Likewise, pregnancy was problematic, particularly for lawyers. There was doubt that women would come back to work after maternity leave. Some were no longer given good assignments, while others were forced to quit private practice or work part time. One lawyer described the loss of confidence from bosses: “Once you are pregnant or trying to have kids, the way management views you deteriorates. The opposite thing happens for male coworkers. I’ve seen it in so many law firms it’s impossible to argue it was just coincidence or based on merit.”
The message from the study was quite clear for women: whatever they are, they are “never quite right”.
The experts concluded that gender equity is not just about representation and recommended that gender bias be tackled at the roots so that organisations can truly be inclusive and equitable to women.