Unconscious Gender Bias in the Workplace: The Howard/Heidi Study

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Sitting on the Executive Committee of a large business group means that while I still have quite a way to go in order for me to achieve my full career goal, I would be laughing in God’s face if I don’t acknowledge just how far I have come as well. In one of the top posts, we talk about how careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder. The distance I have covered means that I have had a colourful learning experience navigating that jungle gym.

One of the particularly difficult sections of the jungle gym to navigate is the unconscious gender bias. I came across the Howard/Heidi study for the first time in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. The Heidi/Howard study is an experiment conducted with a class of business students at Harvard. They were meant to consider a case study of an actual businessperson and comment on their impressions/perceptions of the businessperson including likeability, whether they would work with or for the person, competence, admiration, whether they would want to be mentored by that person etc. The year’s study was of Heidi Roizen who was a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. She was extremely business savvy and, among other things, networked effectively and leveraged her network to make successful investments. She had the typical traits of a successful entrepreneur. For the purpose of the experiment, the Professor changed her name to Howard Roizen and “he” for half of the class. The other half of the class received the original case study with the name Heidi Roizen and “she.”

The very interesting result was that both sets of students acknowledged that the subject had the same level of competence and skill. However, they found Howard a more appealing colleague, desired him as a mentor, and even imagined that he was the kind of guy they could go fishing with. They wanted to work for him and they wanted to be hired by him. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

“Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her. As gender researchers would predict, this seems to be driven by how much they disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality. The more assertive they thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her (but the same was not true for those who rated Howard).”

Prof. Joanne Martin

Only one variable created this vastly different impression: Gender. This is both alarming, familiar and fascinating. Sandberg submits that research has demonstrated a negative correlation for women between power and success. For men, the relationship is positive so successful men are perceived as more powerful and are revered. The more powerful and successful a woman is, the more she is instinctively disliked. How does one navigate a bias people are not actually aware that they have?

But there is hope with a slight trace of vinegar:

This is an old reference but it still serves the purpose: “A 2011 study published in Human Relations surveyed 60,000 full-time workers on their attitudes toward male versus female managers. At first, its conclusions seem to bolster Sandberg’s claim that people are more accepting of successful men than successful women: Of the 46 percent of respondents who expressed a preference for their boss’s gender, 72 percent said they wanted a male manager. But another aspect of the results highlights a flaw in the Heidi/Howard study: People who actually had female managers did not give them lower ratings than people who had male managers. That is, though many people preferred male managers in theory, in practice those gender biases did not play out.”

Where the writer does not carry the conversation is that once a person actually experiences having a female boss, their perception is adjusted to match reality but where one never has a female boss, it remains. The vinegar is that because of the perceptions on the one hand, and the level of ambition and commitment required to actively navigate this section of the jungle gym, there are not a lot of female leaders so for a lot of people, the bias lives on.

Saying we need more female leaders and having conversations about it is the easy part. The hard part is whether those “women who can lead” are us and how to navigate the issues in practice.

In Sandberg’s mind there exists an “ambition gap” between men and women. Men’s ambition and drive persists throughout much of their lifetime, while women’s waxes and wanes based largely on the choices they face of career and family. Men have made fewer sacrifices between personal fulfillment and business success.

Maria Kutsarou

And the most important challenge for women leaders from my point of view is what is called “the cost of ambition” i.e. the fact that women usually tend to view their work as only one piece of the pie that represents their total life experience. If they’re forced to focus 24/7 on work for a majority of their professional lives, most women will choose not to pay that price!” 

Maria Kutsarou

Answering these questions and views calls for a follow-up article but in the meantime, I would love to hear your genuine thoughts on this issue. Let’s talk about it so we can figure it out. In the meantime, ask yourself what you disliked about the image of the woman in this post? Then ask yourself why.

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