Breaking the Cycle of Bias That Works Against Women Leaders

Women are presented job opportunities differently than men — depending on the hiring manager’s political ideology.

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It turns out that gender bias in hiring and advancement is more pervasive than we thought.

While progress has certainly been made toward workplace gender parity — some companies, for example, are writing more gender-balanced performance reviews — the reality is that women are still underrepresented in private-sector leadership positions. There are likely multiple drivers of this. Outright discrimination — denying women jobs on the basis of their gender rather than their skill sets — is certainly one. But another, harder-to-detect factor can contribute to the leadership gap: the tendency of some organizational decision makers to subtly dissuade women from pursuing leadership roles.

Specifically, our research found that decision makers who are more ideologically conservative tend to present leadership positions less favorably to female candidates than to male candidates compared with more liberally minded decision makers. As a result, women may never even pursue these roles, having been “talked out of it” based on how the opportunities were presented. This can be explained by psychology research that has found that conservatives are generally more protective of the status quo than their liberal counterparts and feel anxious about disrupting it. The problem is that the status quo they’re protecting already includes more men in leadership roles, partly as a result of past bias, which creates a systemic cycle of bias-fueled advancement that’s difficult for women to break.

Proving Subtle Bias

We conducted a series of studies to examine this form of subtle gender bias.

First, we asked participants to imagine themselves as decision makers tasked with staffing a leadership position and to write a job description for the role — aimed at either a male (“David”) or female (“Sarah”) candidate. We gave them eight pieces of information (such as office location and schedule flexibility) to choose from in writing the description: four pieces of information that were positive and four that were negative. The participants also indicated their political ideology on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (extremely liberal) to 4 (moderate) to 7 (extremely conservative). Our results showed that conservatives included fewer pieces of positive information when describing the position to Sarah than to David; there was no such difference for liberal participants.

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