Opportunities for advancement: Gender bias in the workplace

People working in an office space

Gender-based assumptions and stereotypes influence a wide array of social behavior. These stereotypes are so prevalent we often don’t realize their impact. Gender bias, and other biases, influences nearly every decision we make, resulting in

numerous obstacles for women in the workplace. These barriers often limit women from participating in certain occupations and reduce the number of women who “rise to the top.” 

A healthcare provider in a female-dominated clinic that serves primarily female patients recently shared with me that although her clinic focuses on women’s health and promotes female well-being, there are no female managers or leaders in her organization. Another woman, an engineer, shared that she has more qualifications than any of her supervisors, yet isn’t treated as an equal. Other women I’ve interviewed felt they needed to “mimic male behavior and dress” to fit in with their male colleagues as failure to do so could result in their colleagues viewing them as “too feminine” or not accepting them into their social groups. 

Image: Joel Andrus
Joel Andrus

These examples demonstrate just a few of the challenges impacting women in the workplace. In an age when organizations are rapidly embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, issues of gender bias continue to persist. Women often have to work harder to prove their competence and ability, with much of their success being attributed to luck rather than skill. The practice of appointing a “token” woman to a leadership position (a DEI strategy utilized by organizations), unfortunately, often makes it more difficult for other women to advance as organizations believe they have “solved” the diversity issue. Furthermore, the women appointed to these roles understand the opportunities for advancement and leadership positions continue to be limited, so they may fiercely protect their vaulted positions — while blocking opportunities for others. Women of different racial or ethnic backgrounds face even greater obstacles because of these and other biases.

Gender biases are especially harmful for women who have children. While men with families are typically viewed in a more positive light, women with families are seen as less committed to their careers. This often leads to women exiting their careers or leadership tracks after having children, as well as creating feelings that women can’t be both good mothers and good professionals. Women with working partners are also much more likely to put their career goals on the back burner because of family demands. 

Biases not only impact the way others see women in the workplace, they may also negatively impact how a woman views herself. Women with opportunities to apply for promotions or new positions often doubt their ability to fill the position if their qualifications don’t line up exactly with the needs of the position. Men tend to be more willing to apply even if they are not fully qualified, which creates more opportunities for advancement.

Helping women overcome biases in the workplace has become a focus of my research at the University of Missouri. My goal is to identify sources of persistent gender bias and provide potential remedies to this pernicious issue. Specifically, I focus on a particular outcome of gender bias known as vertical sex segregation, which creates what are known as the “glass ceiling” and “glass cliff” effects. Vertical success bias impacts more than just a woman’s ability to rise in the leadership ranks of her organization. Women seeking funding for their businesses face more obstacles than men, thus reducing their ability to grow these businesses. 

The key question I have – and for which there is surprisingly little information – is: how can we reduce the negative effects of gender bias in the workplace? For more on that question, please see an expanded article, "Changing the tide: reducing gender bias at work."