The New Subtle Sexism Toward Women in the Workplace

Take it from years of behavioral research: implicit biases have an overwhelmingly negative effect on women in traditionally male professions.

The firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times brought renewed attention to the topic of gender workplace bias, at least for a fleeting cultural moment.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. insists the matter had nothing to do with gender, which may well prove true. Still, there's some measure of comfort to be taken in the topic receiving more notice for whatever the reason, because the danger of modern gender workplace bias is that too often it can seem like no problem at all.

Not so long ago, overt gender bias was a perfectly acceptable office practice. (Think every single episode of Mad Men.) That sort of in-your-face sexism is much rarer in today's work environment, even if it's only driven away by fear of a lawsuit. But the disappearance of explicit sexism can give the false impression that it no longer exists.

The "Soft" War On Women

On the contrary, behavioral evidence compiled over the past two decades suggests workplace gender bias not only persists but thrives in ways many of us don't even realize, particularly for women in male-dominated professions. These stereotypes are so embedded in the cultural brain that we often serve them without being aware. The 2013 book The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy amasses a suite of research to show that office sexism still exists, it's just less blatant than it used to be.

"It's subtle—you can't point your finger at this," says Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis University, co-author of the book with Caryl Rivers. "That's why we call it a soft war."

Social scientists believe modern workplace gender bias generally takes two forms.

The Trap of Descriptive Bias

The first, known as descriptive stereotype, ascribes certain characteristics to women. They are caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on—traits consistently used to describe women for decades. Left alone those traits aren't bad, of course, but when a woman performs a job traditionally held by men they can become incredibly harmful.

The result is what psychologist Madeline E. Heilman of New York University calls a "lack of fit" between the personality a woman is supposed to possess and the attributes considered necessary for the job.

Here's where the male descriptive stereotypes come into play: competent, assertive, decisive, rational, objective. When managers have little information about what an employee or candidate is actually like, they fill in the knowledge gap with these descriptive stereotypes, often to the detriment of women.

One study published earlier this year shows the potential consequences of descriptive bias during the job hunt. For the research, led by Ernesto Reuben of Columbia Business School, test participants were asked to hire candidates for a math task that both genders perform equally. The participants were twice as likely to hire the man even when candidates were identical—for the simple reason that women are seen as worse at math than men.

The damaging effect of descriptive bias lingers even once a woman gets the job. A 2005 study by Heilman and collaborator Michelle Haynes asked test participants to read a description of investment portfolio work (read: traditionally male) performed by a male-female team. In the absence of information about individual contributions to the work, participants rated the women as having been less influential and playing a more minor role.

"Those negative expectations are lethal," says Heilman. "You're not going to pick somebody for a job if you think they're not going to do it well. And if they're in the job, it's going to affect how you view what they do."

The Other Side of the Discrimination Coin: Prescriptive Bias

The second major form of gender bias is prescriptive. In this case, women who do break through and claim a traditionally male position are seen to have violated their prescribed norms. Here's where the woman who should be compassionate acts forcefully and instead of being called decisive gets labeled "brusque" or "uncaring."

Here the empirical evidence is also overwhelming. Studies have found that women who succeed in male domains (violating incompetence) are disliked, women who promote themselves (violating modesty) are less hirable, women who negotiate for higher pay (violating passivity) are penalized, and women who express anger (violating warmth) are given lower status.

An analysis of performance evaluations from junior male and female attorneys at a Wall Street firm concluded that ratings dropped for women who didn't display "interpersonal warmth."

"They're out of line, breaking the rules, violating the 'shoulds' of gender stereotypes," says Heilman. "The issue is not: are they that way or not that way. The issue is: men and women are probably behaving exactly the same but women are taking a hit."

Lest such work be accused of existing only in a controlled setting, some researchers have recently tested the presence of hidden gender biases in the real world—only to find the same results. A research team led by psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin recently sent science faculty at top universities applications for a lab manager position. The resumes were identical except for a male or female name. Yet the faculty still rated the male candidate as more competent and hirable than the women, even proposing higher starting salaries.

Via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The biases can break both ways: men who violate gender norms by pursuing traditionally female jobs suffer, too. But women take a financial hit in addition to the social strain. Their starting salaries can be lower, as the lab manager study demonstrated, and Barnett says women tend to be promoted on performance as opposed to potential, which can stall their rise or hasten their fall. Together the biases conspire to produce the gender pay gap that separates full-time year-round male and female workers (if not men and women in the same job at the same firm).

Not Admitting We Have A Problem

The looming question is why we let all these biases persist in the face of such an avalanche of evidence. Management scholar Victoria L. Brescoll of Yale, a collaborator on the lab manager study, suspects the problem is so well hidden in the social psyche that it's hard to spot let alone change. After all, no one wants to think of themselves as a sexist these days (or at least not sexist enough to be called on it). And studies have found that women themselves display the same biases, often evaluating female employees less favorably than males.

"We like to think of ourselves as really fair and unbiased," says Brescoll. "So when these things come out it's surprising to us. There's a certain amount of denial: 'Oh, it's not me. It doesn't happen to me.'"

That lack of awareness makes the problem harder to address, especially if a company has an ineffectual gender equity policy in place. But steps can be taken to help. At a national level, Australian companies have to disclose gender achievements as well as the percentage of women in senior management. At a company level, removing inference from an evaluation—either by aligning it with objective criteria or by enhancing accountability for a decision—can also eliminate the gaps filled in with descriptive and prescriptive biases.

Brescoll points to a so-called "3-4-5" program crafted by Deloitte in the late 1990s to confront a dearth of female leaders in the company. Rather than promote an exhausting work culture in which employees essentially lived in a client's office, all consultants spent three nights on the road, four days with the client, and the fifth back at the home office. The program reduced the need for rising women to choose between family and career—and made the clients happier, too.

"It's just not the case when we say there's nothing we can do—that these biases are so entrenched," says Brescoll. "Well, there's things you can do. Organizations do them, and they work."

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • Lube Job

    I work in an all make field, I'm the only woman, i make less than everyone even though i know more and have been their longer, my boss has made sexist comments, he told my other boss he would make sure I failed my evaluation, and he did, and I was the only one, if I complain about anything I'm whining, if a guy complains they look into it, he threatened the other people's jobs if they didn't sign a statement against me, they wouldn't because it was just lies.

  • Rachel Gonzalez

    How can you be sure that this is because you are a woman, and not because you aren't performing at the level they need? Most employees don't have the self awareness to admit when they aren't doing a good job.

  • Nathanial Poling

    One thing to also keep in mind is the queen bee syndrome where women hold each other down because of a perceived threat to their job by another woman. I have seen this happen more times than I care to admit because it is a sad reality. You would think the opposite would occur with all the valid points brought up in this article.

  • It's very good to high light these biases and make people aware of them. However, it's only one side of the coin. Of course men and women are different. When you pretend we are the same, it doesn't feel right. Better to look at the real differences (maths isn't one! warmth also isn't) and how both men and women bring unique value. Eg men and women do have different eyes, we see differently. Women tend to be better at seeing detail (including facial and body expressions), men tend to be more focussed on danger signals (who will attack me, who can get at my position). Rather than rubbish either the one or the other, see if this applies to you or the person you know and how it can bring value to your team.

  • kirty18

    The entire article is about gender stereotyping, then ends with an anecdote about retaining women by giving them more time with their families. The work/life balance discussion is an important, and different, one than the one at issue in this article. The idea that "more time with family" is an exclusively female need is one of the most harmful biases in the modern workplace.

  • To piggyback on the comment, "We like to think of ourselves as really fair and unbiased", and cut to the chase, here are some practical solutions for women (and even those who can relate to them), encapsulated in this article co-authored by my business partner (Dorothy M. Neddermeyer) and I (Monique MacKinnon): "Climbing the corporate ladder in high heels: How to balance beauty with braveness". You can view it here: Please enjoy!

  • Monique: Thanks for your comment. Of course, I agree. I have climbed a lot of ladders in high heels for more years than most of the readers here. Now I enjoy educating careerists, executives and entrepreneurs how to be successful without breaking a sweat. First and foremost one needs to transcend one's communication patterns to be uplifting and respectful… no matter what our differences of opinions are — we need to find a way to navigate and create a win/win opportunity. The old saying, 'you get more flies with honey than vinegar' applies. What ladder are you climbing? What obstacles are you encountering? What patterns are you noticing that seem to plague you endlessly? Discover what is holding you back and create a solution. There is no shame in engaging with a mentor. Keep climbing...and enjoy the journey.

  • Jennifer Royal

    So you're a liberal, feminist, and you like to write propaganda? Ok then... Good luck with your career Mr. "Professional Journalist". rolls eyes

  • suzsaid

    This isn't subtle discrimination and it isn't new, unless you're male maybe and haven't paid attention to any sociology, psychology news novels or movies from the last 50 to 70 years. Women have known about it all along, and resented it.


    "Yes, women are called brusque and uncaring. Men are called assholes and cutthroat."

    Agreed, women and men are given different descriptions for the exact same behavior. Men are admired and rewarded for these traits, promoted and encouraged subtly and sometimes blatantly . Being an asshole and cutthroat man is financially rewarding, an admired state, and emulated by other men. For women, the exact same behavior is penalized financially and with lack of opportunity.

    Both women and men are often forced into rigid gender roles without regard for their actual preference.

  • Steven Netsch

    I have a news flash for you Eric: Men and women are fundamentally different. We each have our strengths. To call perceptions of these differences a "Soft war on women" is beyond idiotic. I'm embarrassed by your ignorant pandering.

  • tamsyn.woolley

    Yes, we are different, but to a degree. For example, it may be that men are less emotional and women more so, but this is as a result of upbringing, not of chemical make up. Were you told as a boy to "man up" because "boys don't cry"? Do you know women who were raised to not play in the mud because "ladies don't get dirty"?

    But that is besides the point and a discussion for another time and another forum.

    So while I agree that men and women have their own strengths, I disagree that Eric is "pandering", nor is he denying difference. He is, however, highlighting a factual flaw in the world's employment system. It is a provable fact that women are often (not always) superseded by men in the workplace due to these differences, perceived or otherwise. As he pointed out, two applications - both exactly the same - were treated differently due to gender stereotypes affecting the prospective employer's judgement. This is based on a paper application, not an interview. See it now?

  • vmamafrika

    To claim that women are more emotional than men is to contribute to the problem. That's a first-degree lie.

  • Jennifer Royal

    I completely agree. This article appears to be nothing more than feminist based propaganda aimed at perpetuating the narrative of women as victims of society, a society of men to be precise (ie: a patriarchy).

    Frankly, speaking as a woman, I am sick of putting up with this type of rhetoric. I'm particularly fed up with all the "white knights" out there who think they are some how doing me or anyone else some sort of noble or just service, or otherwise believe they are "helping", due to the garbage they constantly preach.

  • tamsyn.woolley

    You're very lucky to have never been the victim of sexism in the workplace (I assume, based on your apparent disregard for the issue). But just because you have never been does not mean that this problem does not make victims of women the world over, every single day.

  • The flip, and equally important, side to this that won't be addressed or admitted is that notions of chivalry persist. We exist in a time when individual women are free (in de facto, not only de jure) to do "masculine" things: Advance careers, go to bars, stay out all night, have casual sex. But the misogynistic notion of the weaker sex who must be protected from their own decisions and the nastiness of men persist.

    It's equally to blame as those things outlined above, but less flattering to the liberal ear.

    To wit, simplest example from this contest. Yes, women are called brusque and uncaring. Men are called assholes and cutthroat. Being disliked and insulted goes with ascending a hierarchy.