How Does Gender Bias Impact the Workplace?
From wages to leadership opportunities to benefits, there are multiple discrepancies between how different genders are treated at work.
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The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated gender inequity in the workplace. Over the last two-plus years, women experienced more burnout and exited the workforce at higher rates than men—creating a so-called “she-cession,” largely due to the impossibility of balancing work with a lack of childcare and increased domestic labor. Even for those who are still employed, one in four women are now considering leaving work or downshifting their careers compared to one in five men.
How can employers address these inequities to create more inclusive organizations and improve opportunities for women in the workforce? The answer lies in acknowledging and addressing the fundamental reality of gender bias in the workplace. From wages to leadership opportunities to workplace benefits, there are multiple discrepancies between how men and women are treated at work.
What is gender bias?
Gender bias is the tendency to treat someone differently based on their perceived or real gender identity and expression. A person’s gender identity is the gender that an individual identifies with, which may or may not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth. A person’s gender expression is their gender-related appearance or behavior, whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s sex at birth.
Gender bias is a type of implicit bias, a psychological phenomenon in which we subconsciously make assumptions about an individual or a group of people based on our own internalized stereotypes. That said, gender bias can also be an explicit bias, which is when we consciously make those assumptions or judgments.
As primarily an implicit bias, gender bias often impacts our decisions in the workplace despite our best intentions. This bias becomes a problem when it inspires negative feelings or perceptions of someone because of their gender identity or expression.
For example, gender stereotypes can create an environment where the expectations of men and women are different: Men may be expected to be competent, whereas women may be expected to be warm and friendly. So when supervisors or peers give feedback to women, they tend to fixate on their interpersonal warmth rather than their abilities or work performance. This is called gendered feedback.
How are transgender and non-binary individuals impacted by gender bias?
Gender bias in the workplace predominantly impacts women, transgender, and non-binary individuals, although it can affect anyone. We want to recognize that much of the dialogue and research surrounding gender bias focuses on women, particularly cisgender women (women whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth), which excludes the very real gender-based discrimination faced by trans and gender-expansive employees.
For example, a Human Rights Campaign survey found that nearly two-thirds of non-LGBTQIA+ employees believe it is “unprofessional” to discuss gender identity at work, leading people to feel as if they must hide their identities at work. The multiple groups impacted by gender bias should be kept in mind as we continue to dive deeper into how gender bias manifests in the workplace.
How does gender bias show up in the workplace?
There are multiple ways gender bias contributes to workplace discrimination. Here is a list of just four common consequences of gender-based bias in organizations.
The gender pay gap is one of the most cited forms of gender bias in the workplace. Across every U.S. state and the District of Columbia, women earn less than men—making an average of 83 cents for every dollar a man earns. The gap is the lowest in Vermont (91 cents) and the greatest in Wyoming (63 cents). Why is this a big deal? Consider this: If women received equal pay, the country’s economy would grow by $482 billion and the poverty level of working women would be reduced by 50%.
The wage disparities between men and women are even greater when you consider intersectional identities, such as a race, ethnicity, or ability. For example, Black women in the U.S. earn a mere 64 cents for every dollar earned by a white, non-Hispanic man.
Parenthood further accelerates gender wage discrepancies: While working moms make less than women without children, working fathers actually earn more than men without kids.
The gender pay gap is also present between cisgender and transgender individuals. According to a McKinsey report, cisgender employees make 32% more than transgender employees with similar or even higher education levels.
Gender bias also influences who is considered for leadership positions. The largest study of women in corporate America found that women—especially women of color—are dramatically underrepresented in management and executive positions. While women represent nearly 50% of entry-level positions (with white women representing 30% and women of color representing 17%), they hold only a quarter of C-suite positions (with white women representing 20% and women of color only representing 4%).
Even when women do hold leadership positions, gender bias contributes to the so-called likeability-competence dilemma: They can be perceived as likable or competent, but not both. Stereotypical expectations of women as kind, warm, and nurturing conflict with characteristics commonly associated with competent leadership, such as assertiveness and fortitude. As such, when women demonstrate the latter characteristics, they are often perceived as “unlikeable.”
While gender bias is well-documented in leadership positions, it can be present at every stage and level of the hiring process. For example, a 2014 study comparing identical resumés with the names Simon and Susan found that Simon was more likely to be interviewed and hired than Susan.
What’s more, gender bias even impacts the way job opportunities are described in the first place. While it is against the law for job descriptions to specifically advertise to men or women, subtle word choices—such as stereotypically masculine words like “competitive” and “dominant” or feminine words such as “support” and “interpersonal”—impact who applies to the role: Research shows job listings with more masculine wording led women to think the field was dominated by men, believe they wouldn’t belong in the position, and find the job less appealing.
Gender bias also shapes workplace perks and benefits—from remote work to health insurance—often limiting opportunities for women to join or remain in the workforce.
As women make up the majority of family caregivers, they are less likely to feel supported and succeed in organizations that do not accommodate flexible work schedules or parental leave. Even though women express a higher need for remote work than men, men are more likely to have jobs that offer it. And when it comes to parental leave, companies contribute to the caregiver gender gap by distributing it unevenly: While 55% of employers offer paid maternity leave, only 45% offer paid paternity leave (often with less time offered for fathers than for mothers).
Workplace health insurance benefits are also distributed inequitably: Only 48% of women are eligible to receive health insurance through work, compared to 57 percent of men. Even with employer-based insurance coverage, women’s out-of-pocket costs are higher than men’s—in part due to specific healthcare needs, such as reproductive care.
4 Ways to address gender bias in the workplace
Addressing gender bias at work is not just a societal imperative; it’s smart business. Companies with gender diversity are 15% more likely to financially outperform their peers, and women working for inclusive organizations report higher engagement, satisfaction, and the likelihood of retention.
So, how do you address gender bias? Here are four ways to start taking action for your team or organization:
Surveys. Survey your employees to better understand their diverse experiences and needs in your organization. This will help you identify gaps in service, as well as areas of success to recruit and retain more diverse candidates.
Compliance training. Invest in company-wide training, such as harassment prevention and inclusive hiring training, to shape a more supportive environment for employees of all gender identities and expressions.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion audits. Start tracking your company’s demographics, pay equity, employee satisfaction, and more through diversity, equity, and inclusion audits.
Standardized processes. Find ways to standardize your company processes—from hiring to performance evaluations—with data-driven questions and results. This will help reduce the influence of implicit bias and unintended discrimination by reducing the role of subjectivity in workplace decisions.
As gender bias often intersects with other types of biases—such as age bias, racial or ethnic bias, ability bias—comprehensive actions like those above will also help you create a more inclusive, engaging, and equitable workplace for all. It’s a win-win for your employees and your organization as a whole.
Ethena is a modern compliance training platform that delivers current, cringe-free content that employees actually enjoy. Our course on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion brings the complexities of bias to life through thoughtful real-world examples, dynamic multimedia, and actionable next steps. Talk to a member of our team to see if Ethena is right for your company.