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Surprise! Study Finds that Workplace Gender Inequality Is Due to Bias, Not Behavior

Topics: Data & Research
Hoda Kotb
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Why do women occupy leadership roles less often than men? A popular theory is that it’s because they act differently at work.

But recent research shows that men and women actually exhibit similar behaviors on the job. It’s the results that are different.

Researchers at Humanyze, a people analytics company, tracked worker behavior at a large, multinational firm. The goal: to see whether behavioral differences explained professional outcomes for men and women.

They gave 100 employees “sociometric badges,” which allowed researchers to track behaviors. The sensors measured communication patterns, movements and speech. (The badges collected data related to tone and volume, but not content.) The team also collected emails and meeting schedule data for analysis over the course of a four-month period.

The results Were Surprising

At Harvard Business Review, the researchers explain that they went into their project with a few assumptions. The posited that women might have fewer mentors, for example, or that they might have less face-time with senior managers.

The results told a very different story: they found “almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women.”

The problem wasn’t that women had less face time with managers. Researchers found they spent as much time with senior leadership as men.

It wasn’t that they had fewer professional contacts. They had the same number of connections as the men.

Researchers also found that women allocated their time similarly to the way men in the same role spent their working hours.

Men and women had “indistinguishable work patterns” in terms of time spent online, time spent in concentrated work and time given to face-to-face conversations.

The team even found that men and women were evaluated as performing at the same level. They received statistically identical scores on performance evaluations.

Why do career differences persist?

Researchers concluded that bias was to blame, not women’s behavior:

Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to “lean-in,” for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

In this firm, women made up 35 to 40 percent of entry-level positions but only 20 percent of the most senior positions. Despite equal performance and nearly identical behaviors, women were underrepresented in upper management.

PayScale’s data on the gender and pay shows a similar opportunity gap for women across employers: Men are 85 percent more likely than women to be VPs or C-suite execs by mid-career. By the time they reach age 60, more than 60 percent of women are still working in individual contributor roles. Less than 45 percent of men are still in the same.

What’s the takeaway from this research? Well, for one thing, we should probably stop treating the opportunity gap as a problem that can solved by changing women’s behavior. To give women equal opportunity, we must work on dismantling bias. Researchers suggest that companies focus on bias-reduction programs and mandating diversity in hiring and promotion.

Without policies like these, all the leadership training classes in the world are unlikely to help women close the gap.

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