Bias vs. Behavior: What Explains Gender Differences at Work?

The Harvard Business Review published a fascinating article last fall that hasn’t, in my opinion, received enough media attention: “A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women are Treated Differently at Work.” S. Turban, L. Freeman. And B. Waber, October 23, 2017. Citing data that reports women are underrepresented in the C-suite, receive lower salaries and are less likely to get that first promotion to manager, they set out to investigate the question: do women and men act all that differently at work and, therefore, do behavioral differences drive these sorts of career outcomes?

They used a large, multi-national business strategy firm to do their research. In this company, women made up 35-40% of the entry-level workforce but a smaller percentage at every subsequent level. At level 4 – the second highest – only 20% of the executives were women.

The research selected a sample of men and women across all levels of seniority and gave them sociometric badges. These badges, which look like large ID badges and are worn by all employees, record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges and speech (volume and tone of voice but not content). They can record who talks with whom, where people communicate and who dominates conversations.

I found the findingss fascinating. There were almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women.
• Women had the same number of contacts as men.
• Women and men spent the same amount of time with senior leaders.
• Women allocated their time similarly to men in the same role.
• Women had the same work patterns as men: they spent similar a amount of time online, in concentrated work and in face-to-face conversations.
• Women had as much direct interaction with management as did men.
• Women had statistically identical performance evaluation scores as men.
These findings held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.

The authors conclude that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company were due not to women’s behavior but how they were treated. Gender inequality was due to bias.

The authors define bias as occurring when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently. There are numerous reasons to combat bias and myriad studies show that diversity in thinking leads to better business decisions. Our bias and the resulting homogenous staff decisions and board decisions hurts our businesses. The data are clear!

Much has been written – including by me – on bias and how it is so very difficult it is to see our own biases. I would ask executives to ask themselves the following questions:
• Is my team heavily skewed toward one gender? One race? One age group? Do I explain that to myself by saying “I was only looking for the best person for the job.” I would suggest that you are fooling yourself and ignoring your own bias. Put a system in place to spread your net wider.
• Are you a start up? Do you have a gender-neutral staff and board? Do you think it matters?
• Do you really understand the company culture? When are women dropping out? Why?
• Do you believe your industry has a limited pool of potential racially diverse candidates? Is it true?

Executives need to treat bias as a business problem and to do that they need real data. This HBR article should be must reading.

“I’m not telling women to be like men. I’m telling us to evaluate what men and women do in the workforce and at home without the gender bias.” Sheryl Sandberg

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • EM Novak says:

    This was very thought provoking. I am wondering what my personal biases really are and how did they affect my career path and choices. Thanks, Kathi.

  • Nocaut says:

    Thanks! I’m obsessed with it!

  • cheryl Bell says:

    I’m going to share this with my direct report coworker who will take my place. Workplace bias is something I was not able to overcome during my working life and I am about to retire. Maybe she, as a woman of color, will have better luck. In my lifetime, every step was a push and a fight stopping just short of filing a grievance. Why didn’t I? The age-old problem of only one of me in the position and the “trouble maker label” . Women in leadership areas didn’t help and actually worked against my requests, either out of fear for their own position because they reported to men or perceived competition or they didn’t want to be associated with someone who caused trouble. The whole dog-eat-dog mentality of my workplace was toxic. I survived with thick skin and multiple offices at different sites. I loved my job and have no regrets on that level.