Only 28% of men, compared with 49% of women, see gender bias as still prevalent in the workplace.
There hasn’t been much progress for women seeking top leadership roles in the workplace in the past decade. The percentages of women running large companies, or serving as managing partners of their law firms, or sitting on corporate boards have barely budged even though female graduates continue to pour out of colleges and professional schools.
Why has progress stalled? A recent study suggests the unlikeliest of reasons: the marriage structure of men in the workplace.
A group of researchers from several universities recently published a report on the attitudes and beliefs of employed men, which shows that those with wives who did not work outside the home or who worked part-time were more likely than those with wives who worked to: (1) have an unfavorable view about women in the workplace; (2)think workplaces run less smoothly with more women; (3) view workplaces with female leaders as less desirable; and (4) consider female candidates for promotion to be less qualified than comparable male colleagues.
The researchers also found that the men who exhibited resistance to women’s advancement were “more likely to populate the upper echelons of organizations and thus, occupy more powerful positions.”
Their conclusion? “Marriage structures play an important role in economic life beyond the four walls of the house.” They affect how people view gender roles and how they categorize others. And, as Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji has documented in her work, using the Implicit Association Test, this can happen even unconsciously.
So even if a male boss explicitly states — and believes — he supports women in leadership, he might still exhibit contradictory behavior or remain oblivious to the obstacles that female colleagues face. Indeed, according to this HBR Research Report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 28% of men, compared with 49% of women, see gender bias as still prevalent in the workplace.
I saw this in my own research for Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law. Many of the women partners I interviewed described a lack of support and sponsorship from key men in their firms. Several talked to male colleagues who admitted that the success of married women as equity partners invalidated the choices they and their wives had made about how to divide the responsibilities of work and family.
These biases are understandable. It’s natural to seek validation for the choices, and particularly the sacrifices, you have made. But when this expresses itself in attitudes and actions that make it difficult for talented individuals whose choices have been different to advance, it is critical for workplace leaders to intervene.
In light of all we know about unconscious bias, including the new research on marriage structures, it is clear that organizations need to rethink old approaches to women’s advancement. We need better training so everyone understands how their own experiences might affect their perceptions about their colleagues’ fitness for leadership. Increased awareness is the first step on the path to change.
Photo credit: The Leader Board