Workplace gender bias is very much alive and well and this is why

Unfair workplace gender bias toward women is a problem as old as society itself. Women trying to build and achieve a successful professional career have had to deal with lower wages, less potential for promotion, and the unfair perception that they are less competent than their male co-workers for a long, long time.

Thankfully, as evidenced by the recent global outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s very clear nowadays that the current generation isn’t going to allow prejudice or discrimination to thrive anymore. Indeed, it’s never been more apparent that the winds of change are blowing in 2020. So, will workplace gender bias against women soon be a relic of the past?

Researchers from the University of Exeter set out to examine just how prevalent unfair discrimination toward women in the workplace still is in 2020, and they came to several fascinating and eye-opening conclusions. First and foremost, their new study found gender bias unfortunately still exists, and that’s it’s mainly being kept “alive” by managers and corporate leaders who believe it’s no longer a problem.

A group of managers was given identical descriptions of two potential new employees; one male and one female. Many rated the male worker as more competent and recommended a starting salary 8% higher than what they wanted to offer the female employee.

That finding in and of itself is certainly disappointing, but here’s where the study provides some more insight. Most of the managers who rated the female worker as less competent also told researchers that they didn’t believe gender bias was still a problem in the modern workplace. Conversely, managers who said gender bias is still an issue almost always recommended equal pay for both the male and female employee.

There you have it. Gender bias in the workplace is being kept alive by managers who don’t think it’s a problem at all. The study’s authors say they’ve discovered a “critical risk factor” when it comes to identifying companies, managers, and professions that are still treating women unequally.

As you probably would have guessed, two-thirds of surveyed managers who said gender bias isn’t a relevant issue in 2020 were in fact men. That being said, the women managers who shared the same sentiment were just as biased toward the hypothetical female employee.

The managers interviewed for this research operate within the veterinary field. 

“Managers who thought gender bias is no longer an issue recommended annual pay that was £2,564 ($3,206) higher for men than for women. This represents an 8% gap – which closely matches the real pay gap we see in veterinary medicine,” comments lead study author Dr. Christopher Begeny in a university release. “When you break this down, it’s like going to that male employee after an hour’s work and saying, ‘ya know what, here’s an extra two bucks – not because you’re particularly qualified or good at your job, but simply because you’re a man’. And then the next hour, you go back and give that male employee another $2, and the next hour another $2. And on and on, continuing to do that every hour for the next 2,000 hours of work.”

The research team conducted two experiments with participating managers. The first asked the managers/veterinarians about their personal experiences on the job with gender bias. As expected, women in the veterinary field are more likely than their male counterparts to report dealing with discrimination and less likely to be acknowledged for their hard work, expertise, and accomplishments.

The second experiment, as explained earlier, asked participants to evaluate a male and female employee with identical track records. 

“The resulting evaluations were systematically biased among those who thought gender bias was no longer an issue,” says study co-author, Professor Michelle Ryan, of the University of Exeter. “Unsurprisingly, these biased evaluations led to lower pay recommendations for female vets. We have worked closely with the BVA, and when presenting these findings to managers in the veterinary profession they are often shocked and concerned.”

Overall, 44% of surveyed managers believe gender bias is still a big problem, 42% believe it’s not an issue anymore, and 14% were unsure. Also, it didn’t seem to matter if a manager “strongly” or only “slightly” held the view that gender bias is a non-issue; if that sentiment was shared at all that person displayed prejudice toward the hypothetical female employee.

Moreover, managers who rated the female employee as less competent were also far less likely to recommend that she be given more responsibilities or encourage her to pursue a promotion. This is an important finding because it displays how gender bias can hamper both a woman’s payment situation and overall career trajectory.

It’s important to note that all of these findings held after the study’s authors accounted for the participating managers’ genders, years of managerial experience, and career length. 

The fact that this research focused on the veterinary profession is especially interesting because it’s a field that’s largely dominated by women. So, one would think that gender bias against females wouldn’t linger among vets. With this in mind, researchers say that simply hiring more women across various other professions may not be enough to eliminate gender bias.

“With many professions working to increase the number of women in their ranks, companies need to be careful not to equate gender diversity with gender equality – even with equal numbers you can have unequal treatment,” Dr. Begeny concludes. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ to ensure gender equality has been achieved. Ongoing vigilance is required, including awareness training to guard against some forms of bias.”

The full study can be found here, published in Science Advances.