It’s often tempting to believe a problem will simply go away. We tell ourselves that nothing lasts forever, that everything changes with time and that even an issue that has endured for years – if not decades – will somehow eventually slip quietly into the dustbin of history.
Sadly, this is seldom how things work out. Very rarely do problems that aren’t addressed just disappear. By way of illustration, consider some of the stereotypes that still shape how women are viewed and treated in many organisational settings.
We know from a wealth of research that these age-old biases remain rife in myriad companies, sectors, and industries. One of our recent studies even revealed the extent to which they survive in our own field, academia. Even now, in the 21st century, with diversity and inclusion to the fore like never before, deep-rooted prejudices and damaging assumptions continue to hamper women’s career progress.
Below we detail just a few of those that are most prevalent, illustrating each with observations from some of our research respondents. Anyone with the capacity to effect change – leaders, managers and HR professionals in particular – would do well to reflect carefully and honestly on whether these tropes can still be found within their own organisations and, if so, what might be done to tackle them.
Bias one: women aren’t men’s intellectual equals
You may have seen on social media lately the following riddle:
A father and son are badly hurt in a car crash. They’re taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is wheeled into the operating theatre the surgeon says: “I can’t perform this operation – that’s my son.”
How is this possible?
It’s remarkable how many people are conditioned to overlook the correct and in many ways blindingly obvious answer: the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yes, the surgeon is a woman. Amazing!
Especially depressing is the fact that this riddle has been doing the rounds for the better part of half a century. Most people couldn’t see the solution all those years ago, and many don’t see it even today. That’s how ingrained this bias – whether conscious or unconscious – still is.
Similarly, there’s an old cartoon that depicts a boardroom meeting attended by numerous men and a lone woman. Acknowledging a contribution from the latter, the chairman says: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Mrs. Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
Riddle and cartoon underline how women’s professional competence is rarely taken as a given. And it’s because women aren’t automatically seen as competent professionals that their ideas, suggestions, and opinions are consistently met with a lack of seriousness and respect. Some of our respondents even confessed to altering the pitch of their voices in the hope of sounding more authoritative, with one noting: “Women with lower voices tend to do better.” This is pathetic in the truest sense of the word.
Bias two: women always focus on family
It’s routinely assumed that motherhood will end a woman’s interest in her career. As a result, women are frequently denied promotion to senior roles or involvement in major projects for fear that maternity leave will inevitably intervene somewhere along the line.
One study respondent captured the issue perfectly by relating how some colleagues deemed her “a ticking timebomb”. “It’s assumed I’ll have children,” she said. “As a woman of a certain age, I’m viewed with suspicion by some… like I’m going to go off and spoil their plan.”
This is bad enough, but arguably even worse is the contempt with which women who buck this stereotype are regarded. Those who retain their interest in a career may find themselves perceived as bad mothers, especially if they dare to demonstrate genuine ambition. It’s a lose-lose situation.
The overarching notion that women are or should be “carers” also sees them railroaded into pastoral roles – positions that are both time-consuming and, in many cases, of comparatively low status. One academic researcher, we interviewed memorably remarked how career options tend to revolve around duties in “any area where students are likely to cry”.
In tandem, the image of men as breadwinners is perpetuated. And breadwinners, of course, are more likely to be thought of as deserving of the additional income that promotion brings.
Bias three: only men are to blame
Even if career progression is harder for women, it doesn’t automatically follow that men are “the enemy”. It’s dangerous to infer that men alone are at fault and, moreover, that men alone have the power to put things right.
On the whole, this isn’t a story of women being oppressed and men doing the oppressing. Almost all of our respondents told how individual men had assisted them in their careers. This isn’t a war.
Rather, this is a case of biases becoming institutionalised in everyday practices. We don’t really notice what’s happening because the process is so insidious. In time, almost before we realise as much, these failings are central to “how we do business”.
Importantly, although their spread might go largely unnoticed, we can’t address these shortcomings by stealth. They have to be tackled head-on. Women and men alike have to accept that meritocracy is a complicated construct – one that’s too often employed to keep promoting people who simply fit the type.
We all know quotas and targets can prompt claims of “positive discrimination”. As one of our respondents said: “There can be resentment from male colleagues at a similar point in their careers. I’ve heard comments like ‘They’ll want to support you because you’re a woman’.” Even so, the contribution that such initiatives have made to the transformation of many modern workplaces shouldn’t be overlooked.
By Laurie Cohen, Professor of Work and Organisation, Nottingham University Business School, and Jo Duberley, Professor of Organisation Studies, Birmingham Business School