In a first-world country like Singapore, where women are well-educated, have a high literacy rate, and make up half of the Singapore resident workforce – the possibility that women in the nation fall prey to gender inequality is pretty low.
However, according to the Global Gender Gap Report (i), Singapore only comes up close to midway, at rank 57 in terms of calculated gender gaps, among 145 major and emerging countries worldwide (The World Economic Forum, 2015).
In the workplace, the percentage of women at senior levels is disproportionately lower than men – in fact, the 2015 Singapore Board Diversity Report revealed that among 676 SGX-listed companies, only 9.5% of board directors, 4.5% of CEOs and 3.3% of chairpersons were female. (ii)
Recognising Unconscious Gender Bias
Until now, women still face immense barriers in achieving their career goals – with many of these barriers stemming from an unconscious gender bias. Don’t get it wrong – cognitive bias is indeed a gift of nature, providing us with the ability to make quick decisions when facing a multitude of information.
In his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that there are two systems in the brain – System 1 is unconscious and fast while system 2 is conscious, rational and careful, but painfully slow. No matter how hard we try, we cannot deactivate system 1 and our brains have the tendency to take “short-cuts”—that’s why we have stereotypes and assumptions.
Since stereotyping is not inevitable, we need to recognise it. And in the case of negative stereotype, we must self- correct. When it comes to gender issues, the stereotype is rooted in historical and cultural values and is applied to both men and women. In the workplace, unconscious gender bias affects how we expect, perceive, judge, and work with men and women leaders.
Career Barriers for Women
- Women have a narrow band of behaviours in that they are either competent or liked, but not both.
- Women are expected to take up more family responsibilities, than the challenge is to manage time and energy among different domains of life.
- Decisions for advancement are made based on unconscious gender bias, for example, an overseas assignment opportunity may be given to a man just because the hiring manager or decision maker assumes that women may want to start a family.
- Benevolent bias comes into play when men act from a paternalistic point of view and want to protect women, thus not promoting her into positions that might be risky or have her traveling much.
- Women have limited access to networks and sponsors, and have fewer female role models at higher levels of leadership to look up to.
- Women are hesitant to advocate for themselves or ask for what they want.
Traditional perceptions of leadership such as being assertive, masculine, and logical are often associated with predominantly male qualities. Women who want to advance their career often find themselves facing a double bind of being either capable or liked – but not both.
A recent study by CCL found that, women are twice as likely to be called “bossy” at work than men; while men are just as likely, if not more likely, to act “bossy.” Moreover, bossy women coworkers are seen as more unpopular and less likely to be successful in the future, compared to bossy men co-workers.(iii)
A Repeated Cycle of Bias
Since CCL’s first use of the term “glass ceiling” in 1980s (iv), more women have successfully reached higher positions in organizations. However, the end of this bias doesn’t happen when women break through the glass ceiling to climb up the career ladder – even after they rise to a certain position, gender bias is still imminent.
Another piece of research using CCL’s 360-degree assessment data revealed that when women executives (those who have already broken through the glass ceiling) showed diversity-valuing behaviors in the workplaces, their performance ratings were penalized.Why is this so?
Valuing diversity highlighted their demographic characteristics and activated the negative stereotype of women that they are incompetent and nepotistic. There seems to be no winning when it comes to advocating greater diversity in the organisation – in fact, when a woman hiring manager advocated hiring a female manager despite the candidate being competent, the hiring manager got lower scores for both competency and performance. (v)
This research provides an alternative perspective to the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” which describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female .
It is possible that, these women, amidst a male-dominated world, are acutely aware of the potential cost to promote other women – they may be seen as incompetent and playing favoritism – consequently, hesitating to sponsor junior women.
This unfortunate cycle reinforces a challenge that women face of having a limited access to both networks and sponsors – reinforcing a vicious inadequacy that causes them to be hesitant to advocate for themselves or ask for what they want.
Breaking the Malignant Cycle
Evidently, gender bias is the root cause of the vicious cycle – but, what can be done about it?
- Examine your own bias. Gender bias excludes no one – both men and women alike. Some questions to ask oneself include: Do I perceive women as individual contributors, high potentials, and leaders, rather than as women? Do I judge women’s behaviors, performance, and success by the same standards as a man?
- Question the system. Do we see the current design of the system favoring men’s lifestyles and situations? Does the data show that men are getting more opportunities to rise, even though there are equally competent women?
- Do not assume; ask. There are men who do not want to travel; there are women who prioritize work over family. Organizations need to take actions on a general policy level – with arrangements applying to both genders.
Champion diversity and inclusion. Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is not only a woman’s responsibility. Data has shown that when dominant group members (e.g. men) value diversity, their performance evaluation is higher than those who do not demonstrate diversity-valuing behaviors.vi Involving men in the diversity campaign can prove to be a win-win for all.
By recognizing biases, challenging inequalities and re-imagining the boundaries of leadership, we can broaden our vision of who leaders are and what they are able to accomplish. As a global community, we must RISE to create a world that values all forms of effective leadership and that celebrates all leaders who strive to improve the state of humanity.
Girls, women, organizations, and communities around the world are ready to RISE.
Additional Contributing Author:
Carolyn L Chan is Co-Chair of the Asia Womens Initiative and Network (AWIN), Executive Coach and business partner for Coaching and Leadership Solutions for CCL Asia. She received an MBA from the Univ of Chicago Booth School of Business and BS from Univ of Massachusetts.
Carolyn has over 20 years of experience working globally , partnering on the leadership agenda specifically in the rapid growing markets of APAC. With the key challenge of finding, training and retaining leadership talent, she works in an advisory capacity to build better leaders through developing sustainable leadership solutions. She has spent many years searching for leaders and discovering one of the critical elements to talent retention, publishing – “Build Better Bossess”
Diversity and Inclusion is another area of interest and assisted in opening the Singapore chapter of Women Corporate Directors , a membership organization dedicated to advancing more women on boards. Recently, she is involved with developing women’s leadership and awareness in the areas of Unconscious Bias and Executive Presence, co-authoring “ Decoding and overcoming the unconscious gender bias effect.”
Carolyn invests time listening to leaders and capturing themes on their journeys to the top. Specific areas of interests include: Diversity, Women’s Advancement and Cultural Intelligence. She is married with two teenage sons and enjoys travel, food and new ideas in health and wellness.
iv Morrison, A. M., White, R. P. & Van Velsor, E. (1987) Breaking the glass ceiling, Can women reach the top of America’s largest corporations? Addison-Wesley Publishing.
v Hekman, D. R., Johnson, S., Foo, M.D., & Yang, W. (2016). Does diversity-valuing behavior result in diminished performance ratings for nonwhite and female leaders? Academy of Management Journal.
vi Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee_syndrome