When Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, joined the company in 2008, there were no women on the board. It was only in 2012, four years into her tenure at Facebook, that she became their first female board member. Sandberg’s example highlights the fact the even liberal companies like Facebook can unwittingly fall prey to gender bias. While organizations are working hard to curb conscious gender discrimination at the workplace, they still struggle to negate unconscious biases and foster equal opportunities across genders. Take a look at these statistics:

  • Globally, women are paid just 63% of what men earn
  • Women in India, for instance, earn 20% less than men, in supervisory levels
  • Women represent fewer than 50% of leaders in every industry analyzed
  • Historically, female-dominated industries tend to pay less than those with higher male representation

These numbers reflect only the more obvious and measurable instances of gender disparity at the workplace. Gender bias goes beyond pay discrimination or unequal represententation of women at senior levels of the organization.

In our conversations with working women, we came across various explicit and implicit manifestations of gender bias that they encountered across their employee lifecycle – from hiring through retention and advancement. We have broadly categorized them under five areas.

Getting a foot in the door : Tackle hiring bias

Insights from the Randstad Gender Perception Survey 2019 show that 63% of women have experienced gender discrimination or know of women who have been discriminated against at the time of hiring. Women continue to face bias during recruitment due to their marital status or perceived work-family conflict. For those who get past these initial barriers, the pay scale offered often does not reflect their ability and experience, and is typically less than the average pay offered to male employees in similar roles.

Addressing the issue: Most large organizations have established clear policies against discriminatory hiring practices when it comes to pay scales and many have even set diversity targets. It is time to go beyond these preliminary interventions and drive true inclusion by designing structured interviews and creating gender–nuetral job descriptions. This can effectively address issues such as hiring managers questioning female interviewees about their commitment based on their marital status or family/child-care situation. Companies like Deloitte and BBC have taken the lead on this by implementing policies such as blind hiring which require HR to anonymize applications in order to eliminate sub-conscious gender bias.

Decolorising pink and blue jobs: Eliminate role based bias

Qualified women are often overlooked in roles that are traditionally more male-oriented or dominated. Engineering and science, for instance, are typically perceived as male-oriented fields. Women represent less than a third of all people employed in specific R&D roles across the world. In an experiment on hiring prejudices, Stanford University circulated the resume of “Jennifer” for the role of a Lab Manager. Jennifer was perceived as unqualified. The same resume then made the rounds as “John”. And guess what? John was offered the job. “Jennifer” was also offered a lower pay package (by the few who were willing to hire her) as compared to “John”. This bias is also common in areas such as marketing and sales which require extensive travel, or legal which has traditionally been a male intensive sector. It is not uncommon for clients and external partners in an organization to implicitly expect senior male members of the team to be present while closing an important deal, even though their female colleagues are perfectly capable of doing so.

Tackling the issue: One approach to overcoming gender bias in specific jobs or areas such as STEM or sales is to not only set diversity targets across all levels of the organization but also by job roles. Consider the case of GM that is ranked as the world’s best company in terms of gender equality. GM boasts of a female CEO and a female CFO, in addition to having equal representation of women and men on its executive board. Furthermore, they have implemented pay equality at all levels of the organization and extended their commitment to diversity to their supply chain network. Creating a supportive ecosystem that encourages women’s participation across all levels of the organization, and offering networking and mentoring opportunities can also go a long way in making women feel inclusive and valued.

Breaking the glass-ceiling: Address career advancement bias

Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsico, has acknowledged that her toughest challenge at work was to overcome not being treated equally by her male colleagues and having to “claw her way up” in the organization. Men are typically viewed as being stronger, more dedicated and less emotionally complicated. Women, are often considered to be less focused but more emotionally intelligent with excellent organizational capabilities. The result: men are thrust into challenging and ambitious leadership roles while women are slotted into supportive roles. A recent survey by the American Bar Association shows that 50% of white female lawyers experience bias and are often assigned non-legal office housework. Stereotypical notions and type-casting of people based on subliminal perceptions hurt both individual growth and the business. Women also suffer the undue disadvantage of motherhood penalty. Young mothers are often passed up on for promotions or roles with greater responsibilities as they are perceived to be incapable of doing justice to the task at hand while balancing the demands of motherhood.

Tackling the issue: Effective solutions to this problem include enhancing the visibility of current women leaders in the organization, setting up networks for female employees, providing leadership training to women, and creating a 360 degree review process that is fair to both men and women. Organizations also need to rework their employee policies to make them more gender neutral, thereby giving everyone equal visibility in the organization and equal opportunity to honor personal commitments away from it. Novartis has taken the lead in rolling out a global initiative of 14 weeks of parental leave policy (at a minimum), regardless of gender - effective from the first day of employment.

Breaking stereotypes: Tackle behavioral bias

Stereotypical notions of workplace practices combined with rigid protocols and inflexibility, in terms of how work should be done and measured, can significantly sabotage women’s advancement. Female employees often feel weighed down by unarticulated expectations such as ensuring constant physical presence at the work place, attending ‘unofficial’ yet ‘mandatory’ post work catch-up sessions and so on. This forces women to choose work over family commitments and model a passive and submissive approach at work, making them less effective.

This is further compounded by conditioned bias related to women at the workplace in terms of how they must dress, present themselves or behave in typical work scenarios. Female leaders are still an exception in a male dominated world and are often perceived as being either overly aggressive, meek or matronly.

Organizations would do well to move away from typecasting women into ‘role-traps’ by empowering them to successfully carve out their individual leadership and work style. Consider the case of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who took her new born with her to address the UN General Assembly meeting, choosing to fulfil her role by defining her own standards of work-life balance.

Tackling the issue: Empwoering role models in highly visible positions and providing customized gender-inclusivity training are some ways in which organizations can address unconscious prejudices and neutralize negative attitudes that affect workplace behavior. The technology firm Pitney Bowes leveraged micro-messaging sessions for male employees and leaders focused on tone, gestures, inflection, messaging, etc., that could unconsciously contribute to gender bias.

Re-desinging facilties for gender inclusivity: Eliminate physical barriers

Thoughtfully designing an inclusive physical workspace is often overlooked, especially in labor-intensive organizations and predominantly male-intensive sectors in Tier II and III towns across the country. New mothers, as primary care givers, often face difficult choices when their support system gives in or the child is unwell. Introducing nursing stations for new mothers and child-care or “stork-parking” facilities can significantly contribute to making women feel welcome, empowered and valued.

Tackling the issue: One way to address this is to survey the female employees in the organization to get their input on how to better organize office spaces and other facilities. Organizations must ensure that basic requirements are redefined and met, making the workplace conducive to working mothers.

Debiasing the workplace

Clearly, there is a lot to be done by companies to address gender bias at the workplace. Ensuring pay parity and diversity targets in recruitment is just the start. Effort must be made to understand what support systems women need at the workplace to increase their participation and success. Regular meetings, town halls and surveys can help unearth previsouly hidden obstacles to women’s inclusion and advancement. It is equally important to track gender-disaggregated data to monitor progess and communicate the results with all employees - to spread awareness and tackle the deep-rooted problem of gender bias.