25 September 2023

Bias beware: How prejudice against women leaders is not getting better

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Tarla Lambert* says new research suggests prejudice against female leaders is even more common than we think.

Photo: People Images

Attitudes against female leaders in the workplace are more prejudiced than we think, according to new research.

The study, from Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf in Germany, examined people’s true thoughts about female leaders using a randomised questioning technique including both a direct and an indirect approach called the Crosswise Model.

The hypothesis was that previous statistics and studies on this topic may not paint an accurate picture because people are less likely to share their honest feelings if they feel their anonymity is at risk.

From a survey pool of 1,529 students, 28 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men in the sample indicated that they considered women to be less qualified for leadership positions than men.

Across the two study methods, men showed more prejudice than women generally; however, women’s attitudes shifted more markedly between direct and indirect questioning techniques.

Some 10 per cent of women showed prejudice during direct approaches, as opposed to 28 per cent from indirect questioning, indicating that women responded more strongly to being granted full confidentiality in their answers.

“This pattern suggests that women are much more reluctant than men to express their prejudice against women leaders,” one of the study’s authors, Adrian Hoffmann suggested.

“Perhaps because women feel obligated to [express solidarity] with members of their in-group.”

Co-author, Jochen Musch elaborated.

“Given that even many women have reservations against women leaders, the societal and political promotion of gender equity has obviously not been successful at changing the attitudes of every potential future leader.”

“It therefore does not seem unreasonable to expect the further persistence of workplace bias.”

So what can we (and our workplaces) do to reduce bias?

  • Recognise that we’re susceptible to mistakes: Be aware of unconscious bias and implicit tendencies to make generalisations. Strive to make fair decisions as regularly as possible.
  • Greater diversity will lessen the prevalence of bias: Hiring, fostering and promoting diverse talent will help reduce the incidence of bias, especially in decision-making processes.
  • Question current practices: Scrutinise organisational practices and frameworks to see whether they’re unintentionally blocking certain groups.
  • Survey employees confidentially: As the aforementioned study suggests, true attitudes are more likely to be revealed if employees are surveyed anonymously.
  • Talk about unconscious bias freely and openly: Ensure employees are mindful of it and know how to address it. Encourage best practices like mentoring programs and joint interviews of applicants.
  • Reward employees who engage with these practices: Those who bring out the best in organisational culture by strengthening diversity should be recognised and applauded. Ensure employees know this is valued.
  • Be transparent in the progress you’re making and your ultimate goals.

* Tarla Lambert is the publisher of Women’s Agenda. She tweets at @tarla_lambert.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

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