October 25th, 2011

Gender Bias (Still) Operates in the Workplace

At every Workplace Bullying University, I make it a point to acquaint participants with attribution theory. Attribution is more an explanatory style that we adopt to say what caused events to happen. A scary fact is that what I learned and taught in 1980’s social psychology courses still holds true. There is a gender bias from which men benefit and women remain disadvantaged.

The primary differentiation in explanations is whether or not the reason for an event is attributable to the person (internal factors like traits or motivation and effort) or to external circumstances (situational factors beyond the individual’s control). In strongly individualistic cultures like the U.S., people tend to hold a person responsible for her or his fate, even when tragedy strikes. Rape victims are blamed. Bullied targets are held responsible for their mistreatment. Blaming or denigrating victims of circumstances beyond their control is committing the fundamental attribution error.

For HR or anyone conducting post-complaint investigations to accurately get to the bottom of bullying incidents, that person must look beyond the target for work environment factors, including the bully’s ability to unilaterally conduct a campaign of interpersonal destruction without interference from bosses. Unfortunately, flawed and deceitful investigations do not make the effort to get beyond the obvious. And the most obvious and observable factor is the target, the individual. That’s why they are typically blamed and the bully held blameless.

In attribution jargon, intangible work environment factors are less salient when compared to looking at a real person, the target, in this case. The bias is called actor-observer. Actors, the people to whom things are being done see the environment (external to them) as causal. Observers, commit the fundamental attribution error and see the person as causing (and thus deserving) the misfortune.

Another attributional bias is gender bias. Decades ago, a key study demonstrated that both men and women were more likely to explain success attributable to internal (personal, dispositional) factors when the actor was male and attributable to external (circumstances made success easy) factors when the actor was female. In other words, men got personal credit for brilliance, while women were either lucky or had an easier time of it.

I was disappointed to read in a Psychology Today blog by Azadeh Aalai about a 2011 study that found

Men in typically female roles such as nurse benefit from the glass escalator effect: They’re rated as more competent, more likable, less hostile, and more deserving of promotion than men in ‘male’ positions. Women who jettison tradition for jobs like VP of finance, however, are ranked negatively across all measures—and perceived as less deserving of promotion.

Women are known to experience the limiting glass ceiling effect. Aalai writes that women constitute 66% of the workforce but hold only 15% of senior positions. Women still make only 75.5 cents for every dollar that men earn (a stagnancy since the 1990’s).

I’m saddened that no matter how competent a woman is, she is held to a different, and perhaps unattainable, standard than for a man. Worse is that men actually get a boost from breaking the gender stereotype role.

This is worse than economic stagnancy. It’s a cultural unwillingness to learn from generations of bright women who succeed. Much of the political dialogue is regressive, suggesting that a return to the “good old days” is desirable. Well, I don’t think for many people, the “old days” ever passed. They are still here. Women are kept in check while men are given free reign to break boundaries.

Harry Chapin, the late folkie, in his song Why Do the Little Girls about disparate socialization of boys and girls, wrote “the girls were told to reach the shelves while the boys were reaching stars.”

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The cited research finding came from the article Hirsch, M.L. (2011 October). Gender Contender: The ups and downs of flouting gender norms at work. Psychology Today, 50-51.

I found “a zany brainy look” at the serious subject of gender bias from the Center for WorkLife Law, University of California Hastings College of the Law. It’s called Gender Bias Bingo! Download it. GBB’s glossary of terms is below.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 25th, 2011 at 12:36 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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