The battle for equality: the recipe for overcoming bias

Gender bias is a persistent issue in the corporate world. Despite numerous efforts to create a level playing field, women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. This discrimination can take many forms, including unequal pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and hostile work environments. The corporate sector in Pakistan is no exception, with women facing unequal growth despite their equal effort and qualifications.

Undeniable empirical data on the gender belief-outcome gap

A 2022 study from the University of Melbourne, Monash University, and the University of East Anglia faculty researchers investigated whether gender distorts performance evaluation in environments where unobservable choices and luck determine outcomes.

The study concluded that while outcomes and evaluators’ beliefs determine discretionary payments made to male leaders, those made to female leaders are determined only by outcomes. These findings imply that good outcomes are necessary for women to get bonuses, but men can receive rewards for bad outcomes as long as evaluators hold them in high regard.

A similar study from faculty researchers at Southern Methodist University found strong evidence that gender bias is an important driver of the gender promotion gap, with financial institutions requiring approximately 5% greater managerial ability in order to promote women.

The researchers found evidence that productivity decreases under male supervisors promoted for arbitrary reasons. Companies that promote fewer women see a decrease in outcomes, and gender bias leads to a ‘Broken Rung’ for women at the first step of the corporate ladder, long before women confront the better-known glass ceiling.

The principle of equal work deserving equal recognition and equal pay is widely recognized, yet – as evidenced by these studies and numerous others available on the internet – for many industries and nations, the reality is different from this ideal.

A report by the World Economic Forum reveals that it could take over a century to close the gender pay gap globally. Women in the corporate world earn less than men, and this disparity only grows over time, making it increasingly challenging for women to reach higher positions and earn equal salaries.

Interestingly, this pay gap gives rise to a trend whereby women are more likely to be promoted at lower organizational levels. Lower pay leads to higher promotions in lower ranks, but the road to equal opportunities still needs to be improved with even more rigid performance expectations and limited benefits. The fundamental issue remains: giving women due credit when their performance is comparable to men’s.

Bias and stereotypes

A 2022 study by Dr. Jonah Berger from the University of Pennsylvania found that cultural items have an important impact in creating and reinforcing stereotypes, biases, and discrimination. Natural language processing of a quarter of a million songs over 50 years quantifies misogyny.

His study found that women are less likely to be associated with desirable traits – such as competence – and while this bias has decreased, it persists. Ancillary analyses further suggest that song lyrics may help shift societal stereotypes towards women and that male artists drive lyrical shifts. Subtle measures of bias and discrimination can provide deeper insight into stereotypes and cultural change.

Gender bias and stereotypes play a significant role in limiting the growth of women in the corporate sector. Women are frequently assumed to be less competent and less devoted to their careers than men, leading to missed opportunities for promotion and professional development. 

Like it or not, the “old boys club” still exists in organizations that further women’s lack of support in the workplace. This network allows men to support each other in advancing their careers, while mentorship and sponsorship opportunities are scarce for women. As a result, women feel undervalued and invisible, denied the recognition and opportunities they deserve. 

The man-child epidemic

We have many insecure and incompetent colleagues who feel threatened by the presence of competent women and may use their power and influence to undermine their progress.

Often, they engage in behaviors that contribute to a hostile work environment, such as engaging in sexist or discriminatory comments or actions or actively sabotaging the work of their female colleagues. This phenomenon alone can have a detrimental impact on the careers of women and can create a corporate culture that is hostile and unwelcoming to women.

When Michelle Yeoh won Best Actress at the Golden Globes for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, the iconic Jamie Lee Curtis threw caution to the perceptual wind of poised applause. She expressed vibrating excitement, joy, and passion that moved the world.

When women recognize the impact of Patriarchy Stress Disorder – coined by Dr. Valerie Rein – we can unlearn what we’ve been wired to think. Instead of letting incompetent colleagues do everything in their meager power to pull them down, be a force of hype for every woman in your life and work.

Seeing women support each other is such a powerful reminder that women supporting and hyping other women is crucial. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others and feeling envious of their success, but your colleagues’ wins don’t take away from yours.

It is time to embrace freudenfreude, which is finding pleasure in another person’s good fortune. And it is not limited by gender. It is a human dynamic that the world, especially the business world, needs to embrace.

The double bind of women’s self-promotion

To make things worse, our cultural double standards also limit women’s ability to promote themselves. On the one hand, self-promotion is viewed as a violation of the passive, humble norms for women. On the other hand, the same “braggadocious” behavior is not only accepted by men but is often associated with successful men in the workplace.

This creates a double bind for women, where they are caught between societal expectations and career aspirations. As a result, women are less likely to promote themselves and their achievements, which can hinder their chances of success and career advancement.

Empirical evidence from the 2019 study ‘Gender Differences in Self-Promotion: Understanding the Female Modesty Constraint’ suggests that self-promotion has two important consequences: it leads to an increase in self-promotion by women and contributes to a reduction in the gender gap in self-promotion behavior.

A similar study jointly conducted by faculty researchers from Harvard and UPenn found that the gender gap in self-promotion may be mitigated by employers accurately accounting for it when assessing the performance of their male and female workers.

“Alternatively, the gender gap in self-promotion could become larger if women fear backlash from self-promotion and hence self-promote less when their gender is known,” said the researchers. “Exploring these channels—along with how they may interact with other factors, such as discrimination, that become relevant when gender is known—are important avenues for future work.”

A 2020 study from the University of Mannheim found that competitive male role models discourage women from self-promotion, whereas female role models are encouraging.

“Exposing them to female role models, i.e., successful women who express their preference for competition and their aspiration to belong to the best,” said the researchers. “These counter-stereotypical role models encourage their female observers to view competition more positively and eventually self-select into competitive environments – a necessary condition to climb up the career ladder and reach top management positions. The effects we document are powerful among the best-performing women, for whom it should be most beneficial to enter competitions. Female role models seem to reduce the negative influence of gender stereotypes on women’s willingness to compete by mitigating the impact of negative stereotype threats.”

A missing piece in leadership

The need for more representation of women in leadership positions further exacerbates unequal growth in the corporate sector. The absence of female role models in powerful positions sends a message to women that they are not valued or welcome in such roles.

This lack of representation also reinforces gender bias and stereotypes, as the perception that women are less capable becomes further ingrained in the minds of those who hold these biases.

So, the cycle continues, but it’s time to break this cycle and create a truly inclusive workplace where women at all levels are valued and given equal opportunities for growth and success.

One of the underlying reasons behind this is the lack of representation of female executives in business and the corporate press. At the 2019 Women Leading Change event in Singapore, panelists stated that we miss out on half the world’s point of view if broadcasters and publishers don’t quote women.

“We don’t think to look elsewhere for voices,” said a panelist. “As a news organization, our voice becomes stronger the more diverse it is. If every news organization did it, it’d make a lot of difference.”

Readers may think these are ideas too elaborate for the Pakistani market and not applicable for the time being. You would be dead wrong to assume that.

Z2C Limited, a venture catalyst for MarTech start-ups, is frequently represented by female thought leaders and spokespersons in the international press. Be it their chief strategy officer being the company voice following a strategic investment, their female CTO highlighting a successful case in ESG, or their female data science lead highlighting best practices in data governance, the company prioritizes merit.

Another example is one-click checkout start-up bSecure, whose international media spokesperson has consistently been Mehwish Aslam, the chief business officer. This is also the case with Blitz Advertising, where Sundus Shahid Bari, a strategy director, is the subject matter expert weighing in on the metaverse, loyalty programs, and OTT decisions.

These are signals to the market that ‘we celebrate women’, and they speak volumes over one-off social media posts around women or mother’s day. Actions speak louder than words.

In a world where women must resign from their jobs because their husbands secured a role abroad, Brainchild retained a top female executive. It allowed her to work in alternative time zones while being able to recognize her with remote promotions. It is no surprise then that half the senior leadership comprises women.

Actionable measures

While we wait for organizations to mimic the mindful practices cited above, we must take active steps to address these issues. It starts by creating a more equal and inclusive work environment for women; several strategies can help women overcome these barriers and succeed. 

• First and foremost, women must advocate for themselves and their rights. Speaking up against discrimination is critical in supporting yourself in the workplace.

• Another critical strategy is to develop a strong support network. This can include mentors, peers, and allies who can provide encouragement and advice and offer assistance in navigating the challenges of the workplace.

• When faced with discrimination, giving up should not be an option; instead of succumbing to self-doubt, be in charge of your career, confident and assertive in negotiations and discussions related to your job.

In conclusion, the battle for gender equality in the corporate world is far from over.

However, with persistence, determination, and a willingness to advocate for themselves and their rights, women can break down the barriers that stand in their way.

By developing their skills, building a supportive network, and taking proactive steps to advance their careers, women can take control of their futures and become powerful forces for change in the workplace.

The time is now for women to rise, shatter the glass ceiling, and claim their rightful place at the top of the corporate ladder. Together, we can create a more equitable and inclusive world where every person has the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of gender.

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