How the “New Discrimination” Is Holding Women Back

April 17, 2014This month we’re featuring a series of posts on wage discrimination and other issues facing working women to highlight the ongoing gender pay gap. Today renowned scientist Rosalind Barnett and nationally recognized author and journalist Caryl Rivers describe the barriers to advancement women still face—even in today’s workplace.

In February, the Harvard Business Review announced that more women are moving into the top ranks of US corporations.

In 2011, researchers looked at 1,000 top-tier executives and found that while men still dominated, there had been a striking change since 1980. In that year there were no women in the corner office. In 2001, just 11% of these top jobs were held by women.

By 2011, that percentage had climbed to 18%.

Is this increase something to cheer about?

Hardly. Although it represents progress, at this rate of change, no one reading this article today will survive to see gender parity.

Catalyst reported in 2013 that women’s representation on boards has stalled compared to 2012. In fact, year-over-year increases in women’s representation on boards have stagnated for the past eight years.

Compared to women’s progress in academia, where they are earning more advanced degrees than men, their progress in the workplace seems anemic. In fact, there is reason to worry that women are stalling or slipping backwards, failing to achieve the gains that should go hand-in-hand with their educational success.

Why is this happening?  It’s the “new discrimination” at work. We examined hundreds of studies for our book The New Soft War on Women and found a clear consensus. Gender discrimination hasn't disappeared—far from it. It has simply gone underground, where it is more subtle, harder to spot, and often more dangerous than the old in-your-face bias.

In a major study of women in the US economy, the consulting firm McKinsey reports: “Of all the forces that hold women back, however, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs…women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity. Managers—male and female—continue to take viable female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that women can’t handle certain jobs and also discharge family obligations. We found that many women, too, hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way.”

“Second-generation bias” is the term used by the Harvard Business Review to describe these forces. “A significant body of research shows that for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.” (The authors are Herminia Ibarra and Robin Ely of Harvard, along with Deborah Kolb of Simmons College School of Management.)

This “new” discrimination is often hidden. Both men and women hold biased attitudes based on old stereotypes, and they often don’t even realize it. Women who are its victims often don’t see it coming, and men often don’t believe they are discriminating, even when they are. Bias takes subtle forms, such as the following: 

• No credit where credit is due. Women work hard and achieve the desired results—but men get the credit. New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman and Michelle Haynes of U Mass Lowell have shown that if it isn’t crystal clear which member of a two-member, male-female team is responsible for the team’s successful joint performance, credit is far more often given to the male than the female team member.

Specifically, female members were rated as being less competent, less influential, and less likely to have played a leadership role in work on the task. Both women and men fell into the trap of giving higher marks to the male team member. We heard this same story again and again from women around the United States. It is especially ominous because promotions and pay are often linked to team performance.

• Men are promoted on potential, women on performance. Why do so many young male hotshots move up the ladder ahead of their more seasoned female peers? Because women are judged on what they have actually done. For promising men, potential is enough to win the day, according to research by Catalyst and McKinsey. Women have to prove themselves over and over and constantly fight the stereotype that they don’t have what it takes to be real leaders. Even in female-dominated fields, men get on the “Glass Escalator” and rise faster and higher than their equally qualified women colleagues.

Competentbutunlikable? A major problem still plagues women: when they are clearly competent, they are also often judged to be unlikable—by both women and men. In fact, the more accomplished women are, the likelier it is they’ll suffer negative consequences in the workplace.

Men who are competent are seen as forceful, worthy of promotion, and likely to succeed. Women who display competence often pay a price for it. They are seen by both men and women as unlikeable: unfeminine, aggressive, conniving, untrustworthy, and “downright awful.” These perceptions can hold them back in the workplace.

Less competent women are seen as more likeable, but not very good at their jobs. It’s another lose-lose for women: be very competent, and you’re seen as a bitch. Be less competent, and you won’t move up—or you’re out the door.

To make matters worse, many of the old tools that were used to break down barriers—anti-discrimination legislation and legal actions—can’t protect women from subtle bias. You can’t sue because your boss thinks you’re a bitch or because some guy got promoted on potential and you didn’t.

And many of the policies companies have on the books that are supposed to support “gender diversity” don’t work very well. There’s been poor implementation and a lack of monitoring of existing programs, according to psychologists Brian Welle and Madeline Heilman of NYU.

Too often these programs lack clear goals, evaluation, and enforcement, and less than half even have criteria that would allow them to be evaluated. Critically, there’s little commitment to these programs in the C-suite, and support gets weaker as you go down the organizational ladder. At lower management levels, a paltry 17% of managers support diversity programs. It can be disastrous for a young woman if early in her career she runs into a manager whose mind-set, conscious or otherwise, is that women don’t have what it takes to succeed.

This isn’t just a problem for individual women, but for the economy as a whole. Catalyst found that companies with the most women board directors earned, on average, a 26% higher rate of return on investment capital than those with the fewest.

McKinsey reported that companies around the globe with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company; in fact, profits at more diverse companies were 56% higher.

Research consistently finds that companies that have significant numbers of women in management positions have a much higher return on investment than companies that do not.

If both women workers and the US economy are to thrive, these more subtle forms of bias must be identified—and rooted out.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy (Tarcher/Penguin).

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.