The Invisible Barriers Holding Top Talent Back

Helping people recognize how hidden disadvantages affect team members can shift the way they think about fairness, new research shows.

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Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR

A senior manager at a call center in a large bank must promote one of two customer associates to shift manager. Both Martin and Seth have similar tenures and training. The major difference is in their productivity levels, determined by the index of calls made and customer satisfaction ratings. While both associates perform well above average, Martin’s productivity level is higher than Seth’s. Given Martin’s higher numbers, promoting him might seem clearly fairer.

If this is your intuition, it is based on the ideal of equity — that is, the idea that fairness is achieved when desirable outcomes such as pay, promotions, work assignments, and awards are aligned with meritorious contributions: Martin should get the promotion because he is more productive.

But would your intuition change if the decision involved Martin versus Nicole, a woman? On the surface, nothing has changed. Your intuition might say that only work contributions, not demographic characteristics like gender, are relevant to the fair distribution of rewards. For many, promoting Nicole over Martin just because she is a woman feels even less fair than promoting Seth over Martin.

In a forthcoming Academy of Management Journal paper, we explore how people evaluate these types of situations to arrive at fairness judgments and explain when and how they differ across people and situations.1 Our research found that when people take into account structural factors that influence others’ work, their ideas of fairness begin to shift. We propose that once people learn about barriers to women’s productivity in a specific work context, their intuitions change — and some may view promoting Nicole as fairer.

Equity and Equal Opportunity

The scenario above was inspired by Nicole Hallberg and Martin Schneider, two resume editing company employees. They ran an informal experiment in which they assumed each other’s identity, which Schneider tweeted about:

For two weeks, we switched names. I signed all client emails as Nicole. She signed as me. … Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single. … Nicole had the most productive week of her career. … I wasn’t any better at the job than she was. I just had this invisible advantage.

That was the experience of just two people for two weeks, but the results were not surprising to us.



1. A. Tedder-King and E.N. Sherf, “Fairness Judgments in the Context of Structural Sexism: The Role of Beliefs in Individual and Structural Causes of Success,” Academy of Management Journal, forthcoming.

2. C. Goldin and C. Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review 90, no. 4 (September 2000): 715-741.

3. C.A. Moss-Racusin, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, et al., “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” PNAS 109, no. 41 (Oct. 9, 2012): 16474-16479.

4. S. Knobloch-Westerwick, C.J. Glynn, and M. Huge, “The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest,” Science Communication 35, no. 5 (October 2013): 603-625; A. Boring, K. Ottoboni, and P.B. Stark, “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness,” ScienceOpen Research, vol. 0 (2016): 1-11; and J. Terrell, A. Kofink, J. Middleton, et al., “Gender Differences and Bias in Open Source: Pull Request Acceptance of Women Versus Men,” PeerJ Computer Science 3, no. 1 (May 1, 2017): e111.

5. K. Spoon, N. LaBerge, K.H. Wapman, et al., “Gender and Retention Patterns Among U.S. Faculty,” Science Advances 9, no. 42 (Oct. 20, 2023): 1-12.

6. M.T. Cardador, P.L. Hill, and A. Salles, “Unpacking the Status-Leveling Burden for Women in Male-Dominated Occupations,” Administrative Science Quarterly 67, no. 1 (March 2022): 237-284.

7. S. Chaudhuri, S. Park, and K.R. Johnson, “Engagement, Inclusion, Knowledge Sharing, and Talent Development: Is Reverse Mentoring a Panacea to All? Findings From Literature Review,” European Journal of Training and Development 46, no. 5/6 (2022): 468-483.

8. Q. Roberson and W. Scott, “Contributive Justice: An Invisible Barrier to Workplace Inclusion,” Journal of Management 50, no. 3 (March 2024): 877-897.

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