Bias, not behavior, holding women back

A new study from the Harvard Business Review finds men and women approach work the same way. So, bias is what's holding women back.

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Erin Carson
3 min read

A new study shows bias, not behavior, could be holding women back at work. 

Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP/Getty Images

Data analysts are trying something new to figure out why women still make less money and have a harder time getting promoted than their male colleagues: sensors that measure how men and women in the workplace interact with each other.

In a report published Monday in the Harvard Business Review, data analysts from McKinsey & Co. and workplace analytics company Humanyze said they decided to test the argument that women just behave differently than men.

To do that, they issued 100 "sociometric badges" across "all five levels of seniority" in a company at a large, multinational strategy firm that's overwhelmingly male. Over four months, those badges measured "movement, proximity to other badges, and volume of tone of voice when speaking. They can tell us who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations," the researchers wrote.

They then anonymized the data, although they still knew each person's gender, role in the workplace and number of years working at the office.

The findings disabused the notion that women and men act differently at work (emphasis added):

"Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. Men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority.Yet women weren't advancing and men were."

So why were men consistently promoted higher, and more often than women at this company? Their conclusion isn't pretty.

"Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates ... was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated," the analysts wrote. "This indicates that arguments about changing women's behavior — to 'lean-in,' for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior."

The HBR report comes at a time when more attention than ever is focused on the sizable imbalances between men and women in the workforce. An October "Women in the Workplace 2017" report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org concludes that long-held assumptions about why women aren't promoted as often as women are wrong.  

For this landmark study, researchers spoke with 70,000 workers from 222 companies that employ more than 12 million people. They found women are still underrepresented at nearly every level of the business world, even though women have been earning more college degrees than men for the last three decades. And what's more, men at these organizations typically don't view gender imbalance as a problem. Fifty percent of men in that study thought 10 percent of a company's senior leadership is adequate representation for women.

That's a lot of information. But is there anything to be done with it?

No surprise, the data analysts who worked on Monday's HBR report recommend crafting solutions based off actual data instead of anecdotal evidence as a means of addressing why women are not getting promoted, or might be leaving their company.

"Only then can they transition from the debate about the causes of gender inequality (bias versus behavior) and advance to the needed stage of a solution," the analysts wrote.

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