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We teach young girls today that they can be anything they want to be and point to our nation’s first female vice president, women of color who head Fortune 500 companies, female astronauts, physicians, engineers and global leaders as proof.
We tell them to lean in, raise their hands and use their voices. What we often fail to tell them is that they still face barriers that most men don’t. And that can hamper their progress most of all.
You can’t fight what you don’t see
When women early in their careers don’t understand the obstacles gender bias may still place in their paths, they are less prepared to deal with them and may not even recognize them when they arise. Social psychologist Faye Crosby uncovered this phenomenon more than 25 years ago and it’s still very much alive today. It’s called second-generation bias.
Ongoing gender bias embedded in organizational policies and practices can fly under the radar. In fact, many women, especially emerging leaders, are only aware of gender discrimination in a more theoretical sense — as something that happens to other women. They often don’t recognize when they personally experience such bias.
“Second-generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context – akin to ‘something in the water’ – in which women fail to thrive and reach their full potential,” explain researchers from London Business School and Harvard Business School and authors of Women Rising published in Harvard Business Review.
Far more subtle forms of discrimination are at play. They show up in our continuing to see and describe typically masculine characteristics as synonymous with those of leadership; the tendency to slot women into staff positions versus line roles that are more likely to lead to executive positions; and explanations for women’s stalled progress that blame women themselves for not raising their hands, not speaking up or leading with soft skills.
Subtle and powerful
Second-generation bias can function like an invisible force that keeps women from thriving. In their report Unlocking the full potential of women in the U.S. economy, McKinsey & Company identified the most powerful factor holding women back at work as entrenched biased beliefs. Both male and female managers continue to make false assumptions about the roles women can and want to tackle.
Subtle bias can also surface in factors like men being more likely to have powerfully-placed sponsors who actually help them get promoted; women are more likely to have mentors who advise and support but are not in direct positions to advocate for or direct their advancement. It can show up in a job description seeking an unrealistic set of criteria that are more likely to scare off female applicants who fear they cannot check every box than male candidates who are more willing to throw their hat in the ring if they meet even half the criteria.
Women are also more often volunteered for “office housework” that can detract from more meaningful roles. They are more often charged with scheduling meetings for a committee they sit on, taking notes at a meeting, placing a food order for lunch or tapped to welcome new employees.
Informed is empowered
It’s frustrating to realize that women still face significant hurdles. But you have to know a problem exists before you can fight it. Data from McKinsey continues to show a lower rate of promotion even for women entering the workforce today as they strive to move from entry-level to manager. They call it the “broken rung” on the ladder to success.
The good news is that research also shows when junior women learn more about gender bias, they take proactive steps to counter it and accelerate their progress. A team of scholars from the University of Pennsylvania developed their own DEI program specifically to measure the impact of diversity training. They found very little evidence of the training affecting the behavior of men or white employees overall; two groups who were the primary targets.
However, the largest behavioral effect generated by the training was on junior women. After learning more about bias-driven barriers in the workplace, the young women became more proactive in seeking support for their own advancement.
“When women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects,” the authors explain in Women Rising. “They can put themselves forward for leadership roles when they are qualified but have been overlooked. They can seek out sponsors and others to support and develop them in those roles. They can negotiate for work arrangements that fit both their lives and their organizations’ performance requirements. Such understanding makes it easier for women to lean in’.”
As much as we encourage girls and young women to expand their dreams and grow their competencies, we must also help them identify challenges clearly and see themselves as the very leaders qualified to overcome them and drive change.