Saturday, November 29, 2014

Beating gender discrimination

New Scientist
11:07 13 May 2014 by Jessica Hamzelou
Magazine issue 2969, May 17, 2014 page 48

Have you heard that women are paid less than men because they don't negotiate? Or that they rule themselves out of CEO positions by choosing motherhood over their careers? Joan C. Williams, professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, disagrees with such claims. Not only has she got solid evidence to show that it is gender bias that is holding women back at work, she has put together a list of strategies they can use to deal with it.

The scientific literature on gender bias doesn't make for a pleasant read, with study after study having found that women face unfair pressures in the workplace. After an exhaustive analysis, Williams determined that most of the bias women experience falls into one of four categories. Together, these biases can create an environment in which a woman is expected to repeatedly prove her worth, exhibit a specific blend of masculine and feminine behaviors, support her female colleagues and somehow avoid letting motherhood affect her working life at all.


As part of her campaign, Williams gave talks at universities. "When I began to talk about these four patterns, women in the audience immediately recognized them," she says. "As soon as I began to describe the patterns, they began to laugh and nudge each other." But knowledge alone isn't always power. "I realized that by just describing women's experience, I was depressing them," says Williams. "I decided to stop talking about it until I had some strategies that women could use to navigate these patterns. I had to provide proactive strategies, otherwise I would just make people feel helpless."


Williams calls the first pattern of bias Prove-It-Again!. Because the stereotypical successful professional is a masculine man, women have to work harder to prove themselves, she says.

And that's not all. While a man's successes are likely to be attributed to skill and brilliance, a woman's are more likely to be attributed to luck or hard work. As a result, men are more likely to be rewarded for their achievements.


"It's very important for women to keep careful, real-time records of all objective metrics they have met, and all the compliments they have received," says Williams. "You have to remind people of your successes."

Women must employ another strategy to do that, navigating the second type of bias: the Tightrope. "Women have to behave in masculine ways – being assertive and direct – in order to be seen as competent, but they have to behave in feminine ways lest they be respected but not liked," says Williams. "Men don't."

When a woman highlights her own achievements, she is seen to be bragging – a behavior associated with masculinity. Getting around this obstacle requires what Williams calls "gender judo" – behaving in a seemingly stereotypical way in order to get non-stereotypical results.

"One effective way of doing that is to form a posse – a group of men as well as women to celebrate each other's successes," suggests Williams. "You're doing something very masculine – bragging – but you're doing it in a feminine way, because it is seen as more suitable for a woman to be celebrating someone else's achievements, especially those of a man."

Tightrope bias also gets in the way of negotiations at work. "There's a large literature saying that women don't get ahead because they don't negotiate for themselves, but that's irresponsible," says Williams. "Women don't negotiate because they're not idiots – they know that if they do negotiate, they are going to encounter pushback." The answer here is to employ more gender judo. "Say someone else told you to negotiate," she says.


Williams labels the third type of bias as the Maternal Wall. "After women have children, they face Prove-It-Again! squared," she says. "They have to prove themselves all over again, often because they are assumed to be no longer competent or committed to their jobs."

In a lab-based experiment, Shelley Correll and her colleagues, then at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, found that women with children were half as likely to be recommended for hire as women without children, and were offered $11,000 less. Fatherhood, on the other hand, had no impact on men's employability, and fathers were offered higher salaries than men without kids.


The fourth type of bias women encounter comes from other women – what Williams calls Tug of War. Traditionally, "queen bees" have been accused of undercutting their female colleagues to get ahead. But blaming them for this kind of behavior is wrong, says Williams. "That's not an individual woman with a personality problem – that's gender bias in the environment, fuelling conflicts among women."


But there's another message to be learned from the Tug of War bias. "Do men always support men? No," Williams points out. "We don't expect them to. But women are often faulted for not supporting other women. It is not fair at all."


While it's true that organizations need to change, "we've been saying exactly that for about 40 years straight, and the organizations haven't changed," says Williams. "It's time to give women strategies to deal with what's out there. You have to be far savvier to get ahead as a woman than you do as a man."

tags: gender discrimination, sex discrimination

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