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Gender bias in the workplace – why does it still happen?

Of all the forms of workplace discrimination, gender bias may be the most talked about. But while we’re all aware of gender bias at work, how many of us are actively fighting against it?

What is the definition of gender bias?

By way of definition, gender bias is a preference or prejudice toward one gender over another, resulting in unfair differences in the way employees are treated.

It can show itself in team dynamics — if managers favor same-gender teammates — pay grades — where women continue to be paid less than men for the same roles — and even in gendered interview questions — e.g. “Do you have/plan to have children?”

gender inbalance in the workplace quote

Some people may think of gender bias as a thing of the past, but unfortunately, we are still a long way from gender parity in the workplace today:

Looking to the future, the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report shows that the greatest challenge to closing the economic gender gap is women’s under-representation in emerging industries and roles. In cloud computing, data, and AI, women make up just 12%, 15%, and 26%, of the workplace, respectively.


Gender bias also intersects with racial bias.

In 2018, the average annual income of a white woman in America was 80% of what a white man earned. For Black and Hispanic women, that percentage dropped to 66% and 58%

It’s also important to note that bias is not limited to the gender binary. The most recent US Transgender Survey found that many survey respondents felt that there is a workforce bias against individuals outside of binary identifications. They reported that this bias can result in refusal of promotions, harassment, and even termination.

Of course, when we think about it, discrimination of this type is unacceptable. And yet, it’s still prevalent in workplaces across the world. Why? And what damage is that really causing, under the surface?


The unwelcome impact of gender bias in the workplace

Discrimination is toxic and damaging wherever it occurs, but in the workplace — where many people spend the vast majority of their time — choosing who you hire, fire, promote, and train based on gender can be incredibly damaging.

Over time, gender biases hurt career prospects, contribute to earnings gaps, and promote the underrepresentation of gender (binary or not) in top-level positions.

Gender bias also affects employee development, as women get less constructively critical feedback than men, says behavioral economist Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio:

“Annual evaluations are often subjective, which opens the door to gender bias (“Tom is more comfortable and independent than Carolyn in handling the client’s concerns”) and confirmation bias (“I knew she’d struggle with that project”).”

Gender bias negatively affects everyone in your workplace — including men. 

We know that when women behave outside of their gender stereotype, they may be viewed as less hirable. But research shows that men are also penalized for straying from the “strong masculine stereotype.”

Studies show that when male leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent. When they disclose a weakness, they’re perceived to have lower status. Research also finds that men who ask for family leave — which historically has been seen as a “woman’s role” — are viewed as poorer workers.

Employees who feel welcome in their workplace take 75% fewer sick days

Alternatively, women are often discounted for roles because employers are concerned that they’ll leave to start a family soon. Married women who don’t have kids have the lowest callback rates for jobs because they’re viewed as “pregnancy risks.” 

Gender bias can lead to higher employee turnover rates, too. Employees who feel welcome in their workplace take 75% fewer sick days and exhibit 50% lower turnover risk, whereas those who experience microaggressions are 3x more likely to think about leaving their jobs.

These statistics are unsettling, to say the least. But talking about them won’t create the change we need. Action is required instead.


Overcoming gender bias in the workplace — here’s what you need to know and do

Gender diversity and inclusion are good for your company. Research has shown that gender diversity promotes creativity and innovation and makes companies more productive. Plus, 64% of candidates say that diversity is an essential factor in accepting an offer.

So how do we overcome gender bias in our workplaces? What needs to change?

1. Admit that gender bias exists

Acknowledging bias is the first step to overcoming it. But, the problem is, we may be guilty of overestimating our levels of gender-based egalitarianism. 

Michelle King, Director of Inclusion at Netflix, wrote for Harvard Business Review

“Almost every one of my interviewees said that they believed men and women have identical opportunities, workplace experiences, and career paths. Consequently, they believed that women do not succeed because of their individual choices or capabilities and not because of unwelcoming and even hostile work environments.” 

Essentially: when we ignore the existence of gender bias, we perpetuate it. 
Decision makers need to recognize their own biases and identify where they affect hiring, promotion, and development. Harvard’s (free) Implicit Association Test is a great place to start — you can test yourself for gender bias, racial bias, and more.

2. Start with leadership

83% of corporate directors believe that companies should be doing more to promote gender and racial diversity — and that change begins with leadership teams.

Commit to training and having difficult conversations within C-Suite and senior managers. Uncover and face up to their gender biases. Dismantle their entrenched perceptions. Then move onto the wider organization. You cannot expect your employees to change a culture of gender bias on their own — the actions required for this shift need to start at the top, and trickle their way down. 

Starting with leadership also means being transparent with employees and stakeholders. Keep them in the loop about your gender diversity and inclusion goals, where your company stands, and how you plan to enact change.


If you do this right, then everyone stands to benefit. When company cultures value equality, both women and men are more likely to rise to senior leadership positions.

3. Fight for objectivity

There’s a common narrative around gender bias: “We want to hire more women, but we don’t want to lower the bar for candidates.” But data suggests that the bar is often actually higher for women than for men.

So do away with varying standards and look for ways that you can judge all applicants and employees equally — regardless of gender identity. Focus on their qualifications and performance as objectively as you can. 

One way to do this is by setting up objective criteria for promotions and salary increases. Make those criteria clear to employees and managers well before performance evaluations occur.

On the hiring front, consider anonymizing applications to reduce the effects of unconscious gender bias. Reviewing applications in this way can mitigate gender bias, allowing true talent to come to the fore.


Gender bias still exists in the modern workplace, but we’re here to help stop it

As with any cultural transformation, removing gender bias in your workplace will take time, effort, and the right tools. Start by making unconscious assumptions conscious — draw a spotlight on the unfair practices and procedures in place right now — and then do what you can to combat them.

Still distributing bonuses based on qualitative performance feedback alone? Then use hard data to fill the gaps where gender bias sneaks in. 

Noticed that your applicant pool is too homogenous? Then remove gendered slants from your job ads, resume screenings, and interview systems. Not sure how? That’s why we built

Headstart — the world’s fight discrimination-fighting recruitment platform. Book your demo today, and start creating positive change — not just talking about it.

Headstart is on a mission to transform the way organisations hire! We are the world's first diversity driven Applicant Matching and Management System. We use Machine Learning and Data Science to transform the recruitment process, enabling clients to find the right high potential employees regardless of gender, ethnic status, sexual orientation or age.

With major brands like Accenture publicly supporting our mission, Headstart is already improving the recruitment experience for candidates around the world.

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