Bias or Behavior?

By: Melissa Campanelli

I came across a really interesting Harvard Business Review (HBR) report recently, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, so I thought I’d share it with you.

The report tried to answer the following question: Is the reason women are underrepresented in the C-suite, in general receive lower salaries, and are less likely to receive a promotion because they act differently in the workplace than their male counterparts?

The HBR study, worked on collaboratively by Dr. Ben Waber, CEO and co-founder of  people analytics company Humanyze; Laura Freeman, a data analyst at Humanyze; and Stephen Turban, a former data scientist at Humanize, investigated whether gender differences in behavior drove gender differences in outcomes at a large multinational firm, where women were underrepresented in upper management.

The researchers  collected email communication and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees in one office, across all levels of seniority, over four months. They then gave 100 of these individuals sociometric badges, which allowed them to track communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges, and speech. Basically, the sociometric badges can identify who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.

After collecting and analyzing the data, the researchers found almost no differences in the behavior of men and women. Women, regardless of their seniority, had the same number of contacts as men, spent as much time with senior leadership, and allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.

If the behaviors are the same, then why the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company? According to the report, it came down to gender bias.

“The difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior, but to how they were treated,” the report said. “This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

So, what can companies do about this ? Besides programs aimed at strengthening women’s leadership skills (which are uber valuable), companies also need to focus on the problem of reducing bias. Here are suggestions on how to accomplish that, according to the report:

  • Making equal hiring a company mandate. “Significant research suggests that mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better decisions. Thinking about candidates in groups helped managers compare individuals by performance, but when managers evaluated candidates individually they fell back on gendered heuristics.”
  • Support ALL working parents. Obviously, the higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more responsibility you take on. While that isn’t inherently gendered, “many social pressures push women to simultaneously balance work, family and a disproportionate amount of housework. Companies may consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a ‘family or work’ decision.”
  • Hard data is the key to a solution. “Hard numbers allow companies to better tailor solutions to their individual culture and needs. The data needs to answer fundamental questions such as ‘When are women dropping out?’ and ‘Are women acting differently than men in the office?’ and ‘What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?’ When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office.”

What do you think of this report and its conclusion? Do you agree with the suggestions on how to reduce gender bias within an organization? Let us know by leaving a comment below or drop me a line at mcampanelli@napco.com. I’d love to hear from you!

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