The Cost of Gender Bias in the Workplace

Written By Ariadna D. Peretz, Consultant, FleishmanHillard Hong Kong

We often celebrate Women’s Day by sharing quotes of the inspirational women of today – Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Beyoncé. But before these women came onto the scene and dropped jaws with their abilities to juggle anything and everything, we had Heidi Roizen. She showed us something less glamorous than the above women but jaw dropping nonetheless. Heidi Roizen showed us that men and, surprisingly, women prefer women who are not successful. While we may hold female celebrities in high esteem, in reality we tend to penalize women when they shine.

Heidi Roizen is one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. She is also one of the best networked individuals. She not only widens and strengthens her own network but also graciously connects her contacts with each other if she thinks there could be some kind of synergy.

In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson published a seminal piece of research proving that “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women”  therefore showing that women  –  just as equally as men – have misperceptions about which gender ought to play which role.

The experiment was in the form of Heidi’s biography, which was distributed to a class of MBA candidates. Half of the biographies used Heidi’s name while the other half of the class had the same document but Heidi’s name was changed to Howard.

Both female and male students rated Heidi as highly competent and just as effective as Howard. Yet Howard was considered caring and generous while Heidi was labelled unlikeable and selfish. No one wanted to hire or work with her. Heidi’s actions were considered aggressive and selfish whereas Howard’s actions were considered a boon.

Communications is the basis of all interactions in society and we are the gatekeepers. As PR professionals our role is to make a difference via communications – be it solving a problem or creating new opportunities. As such, it is critical that we remain vigilant in our own work and question if we are reinforcing stereotypes or helping those we serve to overcome them. Are we using sexist language? Have we incorporated gender bias in our key messaging? Are men dominating the conversation or the visual imagery? How are we portraying women?

This is not only important for our clients but for ourselves. The communications profession is dominated by women – they make up 63% of public relations professionals and 59% of all PR managers.[1] Like most industries, the proportion decreases the higher up the corporate ladder; however, we are fortunate to be working at FleishmanHillard. Women make up 40% of the Executive Management team, including general counsel and chief marketing, talent and information officers. As such, FH has been a permanent fixture in the National Association Female Executives’ yearly survey since entering the ranking in 2010.

Ten years after the original experiment, an American news show repeated the Heidi/Howard experiment with a group of New York University’s business school students. This time, the students rated Heidi more likeable than Howard, and students stated they would prefer working for her over him.  However, she was still considered less trustworthy than her male counterpart.

While not a perfect 180°, this is still encouraging news. It means people are not defaulting to gender stereotypes and the competencies of men and women are appreciated on practically the same scale. Heidi’s strengths are now almost equal to Howard’s strengths, and that means we are making progress and closing the gender gap.

But we still have some work to do if we want to slam the gender gap shut. It’s easy to put the onus on the government or corporations, but it’s hard to look at ourselves on an individual basis and acknowledge we engender misperceived gender-specific roles.

I think this is especially important for women, but of course men need to cast a critical eye on themselves too. Do we assume women should do the admin work? Do we expect the men to make decisions? Do we overlook women’s input and then attribute the winning idea to the man? Are we making it possible for women to juggle several roles; namely be executives at work and mothers at home? These are important questions to ask ourselves and each other. On this Women’s Day and next Women’s Day, and all the days in between, may we fight our gender bias and create a society in which women are not penalized for being jaw-dropping inspirations.

[1] The Atlantic: Why are there so many women in PR? (Aug 2014)