Remove gender bias for a healthier, wealthier economy

International Women’s Day 2020 – on March 8th – draws attention to the difference individuals can make with #EachforEqual. We asked our leaders to contribute their perspectives and are proud to share those here in this blog series. Blog #1 comes to us from Katie Obi, Rizing’s Chief HR and Transformation Officer who takes a look at the inherent gender biases both men and women hold.

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Katie Obi, Corporate HR and Transformation Officer, Rizing, LLC

This morning I woke up to two BBC articles in my newsfeed. One stated that, based on a UN report, at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against females. The other said that according to a WEF (World Economic Forum) report, it was predicted to take 99.5 years for women to be on an equal footing with men. On a positive note, 99.5 years is down from 108 years last year… but it still shows how far we have to come. And as for the gender bias findings from the Gender Social Norms Index, these found that “about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders, and over 40 percent feel that men make better business executives and that men have more right to a job when jobs are scarce. 28 percent think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.” Wow.

There has been a huge amount of work done globally around equality, including enrollment in schooling, access to healthcare and improvements in legislation. In a number of countries, the school exam results show higher attainment for girls than boys and more equality in entry-level positions in companies. What still seems to be present, though, is a “Power Gap”, especially in our political systems and corporations. This implies that there is a deeply ingrained bias against women in powerful positions, and, unfortunately, it would appear that this bias is held both by men and women.

There has been a tremendous focus on smashing the glass ceiling. The Women in the Workplace report completed by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org indicates that we may not have been properly focusing in the right place and that the biggest way we can impact the Power Gap is to fix the “broken rung” in the ladder, which is the promotion rate for women to managerial level positions. For every 100 men promoted and hired to a manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired to this same position. The proportional number of women decreases at each subsequent level. Without sufficient representation in those early management roles, there are significantly fewer women with the right skills and experience to advance to higher levels.

Unconscious bias is a really important contributor to this situation, which is further exacerbated for women of color who experience double discrimination. Let me be very clear here – we all fall into bias traps, as is evidenced by the UN study referenced above. Being aware of biases is the first step, and then actively challenging them must become a company and individual imperative.

Two contributing biases are performance bias and attribution bias. Women and men tend to underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s performance. As a result, women need to accomplish more and meet higher standards in order to be considered on parity with their male colleagues. Because women are considered less competent, their inputs and instructions are more likely to be challenged, they are more likely to be blamed for making mistakes and less likely to be given credit for their successes. This contributes to eroding a woman’s confidence in their abilities. Interestingly (and perhaps consequently) men typically apply for jobs when they make 60% of hiring criteria, and women wait until they feel confident they can meet 100% of the requirements. Studies have also shown that women are often hired on past accomplishments and men are often hired based on their potential.  A combination of all these factors can lead to missed opportunities and lower ratings for women.

McKinsey outline 5 key steps companies can take to fix their broken rung, and ultimately their leadership pipeline:

  1. Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management
  2. Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions
  3. Put evaluators through unconscious bias training
  4. Establish clear evaluation criteria
  5. Put more women in line for the step-up to manager

If we truly believe that an equal world is an enabled world, we have to increase awareness of and challenge our unconscious biases now in order to impact equality in the boardrooms of the future. Let’s commit to doing this within our working lifetimes… not in 99 years.