Report highlights career toll of gender bias on women

A new report highlights the gap in perception between men and women about unconscious bias in the workplace.

Image representing career progression for women


Everyday examples of unintentionally gender bias behaviour on women in workplace culture are stalling women’s careers, according to a new study.

The study, by Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, involved 5,814 UK employees and found that gender double standards are perpetuated by both men and women.

Almost three in four (74%) female employees believe their workplace culture makes it more challenging for women to advance their careers than men. Just 42% of men agree, highlighting a big perception gap.

The report, which is part of Murray Edwards’ Collaborating with Men project, also finds that more senior women report greater challenges to progress their careers. Half of senior female employees say their own workplace culture ‘often’ or ‘always’ presents career advancement challenges for women, compared with 36% of junior female employees.

The research found that the culture of UK workplaces is especially failing women of colour. Over half (56%) of women from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic or mixed race background say their workplace culture ‘often’ or ‘always’ presents career advancement challenges for women. This compares to 48% of white females.

Dr Jill Armstrong, lead researcher and Murray Edwards College Bye-Fellow, says: “Women are well equipped to excel in leadership positions, but they’re not rising from middle management in the same proportions as men. Those involved in the study have been surprised by the gender gulf in perceptions about the effect of unintentionally gender-biased thinking. It’s workplace culture that has to change if we are to create equality of opportunity. That has to be done in partnership with men.”

The latest study explores seven key ways in which gender stereotypes and unintentionally exclusive behaviour can damage women’s career progression opportunities:

  • Women being judged more negatively when they behave in the same way as men
  • Men and women being evaluated differently due to stereotypes around strengths
  • Informal (social) networks that are important for decision-making being male-dominated
  • Men having more access to sponsorship from senior leaders
  • Women not always being credited for their contribution to meetings
  • “Benevolent sexism”, which is well intentioned but still hinders promotion prospects
  • Women being interrupted in meetings.
  • Double standards at the root of women’s career progression challenges

Women being judged more negatively for behaviours that male colleagues also exhibit is one of the key examples of gender bias for organisations to address, according to the research. Forty-three per cent of female employees say they have directly experienced being judged more negatively than men for the same behaviour in the last 12 months.

Dr Armstrong adds: “Both male and female employees acknowledge that in many workplaces men get away with behaving in ways that are not considered acceptable for women. Female anger is still particularly unpalatable – we saw that with the uproar about Serena Williams at the US Open. What is perceived as decisive and strong from men, can be caricatured as bossy or aggressive from a woman.”

More than half (53%) of women have seen these double standards affect other female colleagues in the last 12 months. Yet only 18% of men have noticed this happening to female colleagues over the same year, suggesting that while many men are aware women face greater career progression challenges, they rarely notice the ways in which this manifests.

The researchers found these double standards are perpetuated by female as well as male bosses. Well over half of the employees surveyed (55% of men and 59% of women) report personally being treated differently because of their gender by a female boss.

According to the participants’ rankings, one of the other most important issues for UK employers to address is stereotypical views on men’s and women’s strengths. This is likely to lead to biased decisions when filling leadership positions, says the report.

Previous academic research has established that traits commonly valued in potential leaders such as ambition, a single-minded commitment to work and risk-taking are frequently associated with men. The new study found these assumptions are perceived to affect women’s promotion into leadership positions.

According to two-thirds (64%) of female employees, stereotypical views about female traits, such as building good relationships, attention to detail and strong admin skills leads to them being perceived in their workplaces as good managers rather than good potential leaders. Only 29% of men believe this happens.

Kirsty Peacock, HR Director, Dentons UK & Middle East LLP, who has enrolled teams onto Collaborating with Men workshops, says: “I’ve tried many gender equality initiatives and this is the first one that’s started the conversation in a constructive way. Staff fill in a survey beforehand and the workshop begins by sharing the results. Being confronted by your own colleagues’ experiences is really powerful and the anonymity reduces the emotion that often comes with this subject.

“It’s moved the conversations we’re having away from blame and defensiveness towards a positive dialogue, with everyone creating the solutions together. We already have great gender equality policies and processes, but this is enabling us to think about our culture on a deeper level.”

Jason Ghaboos, researcher and Murray Edwards College Bye-Fellow comments: “Men can sometimes wonder whether it is their place to give a voice to these issues, and I have heard from male allies that their motives for being involved in gender issues are questioned, by both men and women. It needs to become more normal for men and women to talk about this.

“Gender inclusivity is not a ‘women’s issue’. To class it as such is unhelpful and masks the complexity of the issues, and the nuance required of interventions. Often solutions in the past have focussed on what women need to do to improve the situation. In truth, meaningful change can only occur when women and men work together to improve the workplace culture for all.”

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