With her 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg ignited a global conversation about women and work.
The central thesis was that ingrained cultural biases around men being natural leaders not only limit how others view women’s competence, but also negatively affect women’s expectations for their own careers. The assumption was that informing people of these stereotypes would be enough to curb them. But that’s not entirely correct.
Now, Sandberg has teamed up with Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, to present another layer to the story. They write in the New York Times that new research suggests simply making people aware of gender bias can actually cause them to discriminate more, not less.
It seems that informing people of common stereotypes only leads them to expect those behaviours and/or accept them. For example, if most people assume a male candidate is more competent than a woman, you don’t have to feel so bad for assuming the same.
They cite one study by Michelle Duguid, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Melissa Thomas-Hunt, a professor at the University of Virginia, who told managers that stereotypes were common or rare (my bolding below):
Then, they asked managers to read a transcript from a job interview of a candidate described as either female or male. At the end of the interview, the candidate asked for higher compensation and a nonstandard bonus. When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28 per cent less interested in hiring the female candidate. They also judged her as 27 per cent less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates.
If you only go so far as to make people aware of stereotypes, they become socially acceptable, Sandberg and Grant write. In order to truly start to correct these behaviours, you have to go a step further. “We need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable,” they say.
Grant offers a great example of this strategy in practice. When he presented data in his classes at Wharton about the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, he saw no change after five months in the number of women applying for leadership roles on campus.
He decided to change tactics:
The following year, he shared the same data about the shortage of female leaders, with one sentence added at the end: “I don’t ever want to see this happen again.” During the next five months, there was a 65 per cent increase in the number of female M.B.A. students who sought out leadership roles compared with those who had in the previous year. And the female students who heard this statement were 53 per cent more likely to apply for leadership positions than those who did not hear it that year.
Voicing disapproval of bias seems most effective in eliminating it. It needs to start at the top, it needs to come from both men and women, and it needs to be reinforced at every level of the business.
More companies are making efforts to raise awareness; this year both Google and Facebook released their employee diversity numbers. Now, they need to step up and say they won’t stand for this any longer and are committed to change.