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Study uses sensors to see if men and women are treated differently at work

October 30, 2017

By Heather Nezich, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

It has been proven that women are promoted less, underrepresented in the C-suite, and receive lower wages then men.  A recent study set out to discover why and see if women’s behavior is responsible.  The study, published by Harvard Business Review, revealed that biological differences between men and women do not affect the way they act at work and are not responsible for gender bias.  

The study used badges containing sensors to track behavior in 100 men and women at various seniority levels in a large business office.  The badges recorded communication patterns, proximity to other badges, and speech volume and tone.  From this they were able to measure who speaks with who, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.  They were specifically looking for differences between men and women in these areas.  “We went in with a few hypotheses about why fewer women ended up in senior positions than men: Perhaps women had fewer mentors, less face time with managers, or weren’t as proactive as men in talking to senior leadership,” the researchers stated.

But they were shocked to find virtually no differences between the women and men in their study.  Male and female work patterns were nearly identical, and the results held true at various levels of seniority.  There were no differences in the amount of time spent on concentrated work, time online, or time in face-to-face conversations as well as no difference in their access to senior management.  Both sexes were two social steps or connections away from senior management.  

A common theory to gender inequality in the workplace is that women lack access or don’t spend time with “the boys club.”  This theory was dispelled as well.  The study found that the amount of direct interaction with management was identical for men and women.  In addition, women were just as socially connected in the workplace.

The researchers concluded that the difference in promotion rates between genders is related to bias and is not the result of how women behave in the workplace.  So it’s a problem of perception.  Women’s behavior is perceived differently, when in reality, it’s exactly the same as men’s behavior.  

“Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior,” they stated.

So how can organizations combat this bias?  An interesting study done by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School found that when organizations evaluated candidates individually they were highly influenced by gender.  But when various employees were considered for promotion at the same time, gender was less of an influence.  “If you see one pair of shoes in a store, it’s very hard for you to know how this pair compares in terms of quality or price or color. You base your judgment on whatever comes to mind,” says study co-author Iris Bohnet, a dean and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and director of the school’s Women and Public Policy Program. “But when you have different shoes available, all of a sudden you can calibrate the color and quality better,” she says.  Organizations should look at a diverse group of candidates for both external and internal hires.

The researchers state then when filling a position with outside candidates, companies are more likely to view a group of candidates.  But when looking to fill a position via promotion, they are less likely to do so.  However, the study suggests that looking at multiple candidates can greatly reduce bias.

When looking to resolve gender bias in your organization, it is important to gather data specifically from within your organization such as “When are women leaving and why?” and “What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?”  Utilize this data to create a bias reduction plan and continually measure the results.  While gender bias may not be intentional, it is real.

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