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Obstacles for Women Reaching the Top: Shall We Just Call It Bias?

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What is different in the work experience of Mary before and after she has a sex reassignment surgery and becomes Tom? What happens when the only difference in two resumes is that one version has the name Mary and another version has the name Tom? What happens if a well-written e-mail requesting advice is sent to a professor under the name Tom vs. Maria? Three different studies give some troubling answers to these questions.

A recent study was conducted by Kristen Schilt, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and author of Just One of the Guys: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality. Schilt interviewed 54 transgendered men -- in both professional and blue collar ranks -- both before and after they became men. (See a review of this study on the Huffington Post and a video of Professor Schilt speaking at Stanford.)

Two-thirds of those interviewed reported "new found authority and competence." They had greater access to workplace resources and influencers, found they had less need to prove their assertions, and were credited with a point just made by a woman but overlooked (something they had experienced as women). One blue collar participant noted how, after he became a man, his job performance ratings improved though he was "not doing anything different" at work. One man named Thomas had formerly been Susan in the same job position. Clients were told that Susan had left the company. A client told Thomas' boss that he was glad Susan had left "because she was incompetent while the 'new guy' Thomas was not." The client had radically different impressions of the exact same work once that person appeared as a male!

This echoes several studies showing disparate evaluations to the identical resume when a male vs. female name was attached. I recently read a report of such a study from Yale, about scientists. Both men and women reviewing the resumes rated the "female" applicants significantly below the "males" in terms of "competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student." Starting salaries offered to the women were lower than those offered men.

Another study involved sending the same e-mail from a fictional student to 6,500 randomly selected professors in 259 U.S. universities, requesting advice. Names of the student sender were varied to indicate gender, nationality and race. The result was that "Professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students . . . ."

I generally attribute the continued low percentages of women (and minorities) in business leadership to what McKinsey calls unacknowledged "mind-sets." These three studies indicate fundamental and persistent "mind-sets" - which value masculine over feminine, do not adequately value feminine strengths or the importance of balancing masculine and feminine approaches, and hold false assumptions about the different abilities of men and women.

I use soft terms like "unconscious mind-sets" and avoid words like "bias" that can sound accusatory. These studies make me want to take off my kid gloves. First-wave feminists (the suffragettes) had to exhibit some anger, as did early members of the second-wave (falsely accused of burning bras). There was anger in the early leaders of the Civil Right Movement. Anger is, I think, necessary to start a change and grab people's attention. I am grateful for those whose frustration and anger changed history. I have often said that we beneficiaries can keep moving the dials of change without being militant. But these studies raise my hackles. I have to use the term "bias."

I believe that most gender bias today is unconscious. But that does not make it benign or acceptable. Because of it, women and minorities still are not even close to proportionally represented at top levels of business. I think we need more noise to expose those biases. Change will continue to be painfully slow as long as these mindsets stay unconscious.

What is your reaction to the studies? Are you inspired to work to uproot these limiting mind-sets about women and minorities? If so, pass this on - and share by commenting!