How Can Reducing Unconscious Bias Increase Women’s Success in IT?

 

STUDIES: RESEARCH REVEALS UNCONSCIOUS GENDER BIAS

Since the 1970s, orchestra auditions have been screened so that the musician’s gender is hidden from view. Hiding gender increased the probability that women would advance out of preliminary rounds by 50% and increased actual hiring of women musicians by between 25% and 46%.

A study compared evaluations of an identical resume submitted for a faculty position; half the resumes had a male name and half a female name. The judges — 238 psychology professors, half male and half female — rated the male applicant higher and were more likely to hire the male than the female. Statistical analysis demonstrated that this finding was best explained by the influence of gender bias on the judges’ interpretations of applicants’ qualifications.

 

Most organizations make strong efforts to eliminate bias in hiring, promotion, and other aspects of the workplace by implementing fair practices. However, unconscious biases influence decisions and practices in ways that are beneath the surface of our awareness. From birth, we develop “knowledge schemas” that shape our beliefs about people, events, and things. They are based in generalizations or stereotypes rather than information about individuals or specific situations. Knowledge schemas are valuable: they act as mental shortcuts for speedy decisions. But they can also lead to poor choices. A notorious example appears in the Dewey Decimal Classification System for libraries: its religion designation devotes eight of its nine categories to Christianity and combines all other religions into “other.” This classification reflects a 19th century American Christian bias, not how the world at large practices religion.

Gender schemas can lead us to judge the same action or outcome differently for women and men. When this happens, it is unconscious gender bias in action. Research shows that we become more aware of one’s gender in situations where someone is the only person, or one of only a few, of that gender, as is the case for most women in IT.

In the IT workplace, unconscious gender bias can mislead employers, both male and female, to make inaccurate judgments in hiring, performance reviews, and promotion. Experiments consistently show that women and their work are misperceived as less valuable than men even when their demonstrated ability is identical. Women at all levels of IT have to work harder and often violate norms about feminine behavior to build authority and demonstrate belonging. Women in authority positions are especially vulnerable to unconscious bias, perhaps because they are fewer in number than male leaders. Studies show that women more often suffer from unconscious bias when: the number of women in an applicant pool is small; evaluators are under time pressure, fatigued, or needing a quick decision; or when performance criteria are ambiguous.

HOW CAN WE REDUCE UNCONSCIOUS GENDER BIAS ABOUT WOMEN IN IT?

Organizations can raise awareness and control the message; identify the IT-related gender beliefs operating in the organization; make performance standards explicit and clearly communicate them; and hold gatekeepers accountable for gender disparities in assignments, promotions, and salaries.

Individuals can recognize that female colleagues or students are not working under the same conditions as their male colleagues; assume people are innocent and lack awareness, rather than assigning blame; recognize that each of us has biases, identify what those biases are, try to understand the source, and be aware that people even have biases about themselves; and create situations where they can learn more individual information about each other rather than just seeing the other person as a representative of their gender.


Resources

  • Steinpreis, R.E., Anders, K.A., and Ritzke, D. (1999). The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants. Sex Roles, 41, 509-528.
  • Take the Implicit Association Test: https://implicit.harvard.edu
  • NCWIT’s Supervising-in-a-Box Series, www.ncwit.org/supervising

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Authors: Lecia Barker