Gender bias is kept alive by those who think it is dead

Research: Greater representation of women does not automatically lead to equal treatment.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 02 Jul 2020

Business leaders can hardly be accused of ignoring the fact that inequality exists within the organisations they run. Over the past few years - before the COVID-19 pandemic at least - firms were (slowly) making progress in increasing the number of women in senior and management roles. 

However, nowhere did progress happen as fast as in board representation, where the threat of legislation resulted in women’s share of board positions rising from 12.5 per cent in 2010 to over 30 per cent last year.

Almost all of the new female directors were non-executive, but the logic went that having more women around the table would erode the ingrained biases that have held them back from senior positions. Unfortunately, new research indicates that is not the case. 

Researchers from the University of Exeter, Skidmore College and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) conducted two studies on veterinary surgeons. The veterinary industry was chosen because women have been well-represented there for a number of years, meaning, the researchers argue, it would be easy to assume that gender bias no longer existed.

In the first study participants were asked to answer questions about their experiences of gender bias at work, including whether they thought it was still present within the industry. Women were more likely to report experiencing prejudice as well as feeling less likely to receive praise or recognition from colleagues. 

For the second study, managers were asked to evaluate fictitious but identical performance reviews. The only difference, unbeknownst to the participants, was the gendered name of the fictitious surgeons being reviewed - Mark or Elizabeth.

Most managers rated Mark as more competent and recommended a higher wage. The subsequent average pay gap of 8 per cent is close to the actual pay gap among vets. 

Managers who said they believed women no longer faced discrimination (two thirds of whom were men) were the “key drivers” of this pay gap. Women managers who held the same view also undervalued female staff. Managers who were conscious of gender discrimination recommended equal pay. 

Researchers say that the belief among managers that gender bias no longer exists constitutes a “critical risk factor” and could be important when trying to identify who within a profession is likely to perpetuate gender bias. 

The researchers warn that the presence of clearly ingrained gender biases in an apparently equal sector should act as a warning to businesses in other sectors that simply improving the representation of women will automatically correct the problem. 

“Do not equate gender diversity with gender equality. Even with equal numbers you can have unequal treatment," says the University of Exeter’s Chris Begeny. "There is no 'silver bullet' to ensure gender equality has been achieved.”

Begeny adds: "Overall, this research highlights a rather insidious paradox that can arise when individuals misperceive the level of progress made on gender equality in their profession, such that those who mistakenly think gender bias is no longer an issue become the highest risk for perpetuating it."

Awareness training and the removal of details that could be used to determine an applicant’s gender from job applications are some of the “guard rails” the researchers recommend to help minimise the impact of gender bias.

Image credit: Monty Rakusen via Getty


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