Numerous reasons have been proposed for why gender inequality remains frustratingly stagnant. One persistent argument says it’s because of differences in men and women’s behavior. But do men and women act all that differently? An analysis of men and women’s behavior in one company suggests that the difference in their promotion rates wasn’t due to their behavior but to how they were treated. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, they had indistinguishable work patterns, and they scored equally in performance evaluations. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.
Here’s a work scenario many of us know too well: You are in a meeting and your manager brings up a project that needs to be assigned. It’s not particularly challenging work, but it’s time-consuming, unlikely to drive revenue, and probably won’t be recognized or included in your performance evaluation. As your manager describes the project and asks for a volunteer, you and your colleagues become silent and uneasy, everyone hoping that someone else will raise their hand. The wait becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Then, finally, someone speaks up: “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Our research suggests that this reluctant volunteer is more likely to be female than male. Across field and laboratory studies, we found that women volunteer for these “non-promotable” tasks more than men; that women are more frequently asked to take such tasks on; and that when asked, they are more likely to say yes.
Although companies have invested heavily in programs to advance women leaders, the number of women in executive roles has not changed significantly in the last decade. Even if women are well represented as middle managers, their numbers drop off when making the jump to VP-level executives. Why are women not rising to executive ranks?
One reason is the feedback men and women receive along the way. Our research shows that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.
Gender discrimination is a problem in practically every industry, and it’s inflamed by the fact that men don’t really believe it’s an issue. But we finally have some hard numbers to work with in order to expose how bad the problem is, thanks to a survey of 4,914 U.S. adults, about half of whom are employed in STEM fields. According to the report released Tuesday by the nonpartisan “fact tank” Pew Research Center, 50 percent of women working in STEM have been subjected to gender discrimination in their professional environments, compared to 19 percent of men in STEM professions and 41 percent of women in the broader workforce.
It’s not just movie moguls and politicians; the problem is rampant in STEM fields as well. But recent moves by major organizations could mark a sea change in addressing this entrenched, degrading behavior.