#RethinkLeadership: Unconscious Bias, the Glass Ceiling and the Hammer

My daughter is a kid and I’m looking for tricks to keep it that way …

This was part of a Twitter conversation I had last week with Garth Sundem, a concerned dad, after he posted a story on unconscious bias and how it starts younger than we think.

Sundem, a science writer whose recent book is titled Beyond IQ: Scientific Tools for Training Problem Solving, Intuition, Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and More, wrote a blog post on a new study, “showing that not only are girls as young as six prone to subconscious biases that can hurt their math ability, but this bias can be wiped clean, leaving attitudes and skills functioning at their fullest.”

hashtag-rethink-leadership-logo-v1 (1)So, good and bad news.

In the study, a group of young girls were given a picture of a girl solving a math problem and in the picture there was a boy sitting in the front row watching. And, guess what? The group of girls did better on math problems they were given to solve right after they colored the picture than girls who were given a picture of a boy solving a math problem and a girl watching.

Girls can do well at math, especially if shown other girls doing math. It’s a counter-bias trick; and wouldn’t it be great if we could do something like this for women trying to rise to leadership roles in the workplace?

If we all saw more women in corner offices, it could help more women rise. But, how the heck do we get them there in the first place? How do we fight unconscious bias that may go back to our childhood? The business world has been asking these questions for a while.

As part of Families and Work Institute’s ongoing #RethinkLeadership initiative, we asked our panel of experts the second in a series of five questions meant to get us all rethinking what leadership looks like.

Question #2: 

What do you see as the most important change the business world needs to make in order to keep women engaged in taking on leadership positions in companies?

EReidErinrin Reid, a Peter Paul Career Development professor, and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business

We have few women in leadership not because women are uninterested in moving into leadership; rather, the problem is that women confront biases that, over time, push them off the path to leadership.

Two especially problematic barriers are masculine work cultures and stereotypes about mothers.

Many workplaces remain male dominated, especially at the upper echelons. In these workplaces, the characteristics that people associate with success are those most typically associated with men, such as aggression and placing work ahead of family. Women are not expected to have these characteristics, and when they do, they may face backlash for straying from our expectations of them as women.

For example, recent research by Jennifer Berdahl and Sue Moon documents how women who buck gender stereotypes by not having children are more likely than other women to be mistreated at work.

Not all women are mothers, but many are, and mothers confront numerous biases and penalties in the workplace. For example, as Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick found, mothers are assumed to be warm, but not competent, and people are less likely to want to hire, promote and train mothers than other types of workers.

These biases are clearly problematic for mothers’ advancement up the hierarchy.

To help women remain on the path to leadership, the business world must begin to address these biases. Raising awareness of them is an important first step towards doing so.

1cd94e0Kunal Modi, management consultant who worked for Teach for America and the White House National Economic Council, and a contributing author to “Lean In for Graduates” 


Businesses can start by immediately addressing the unconscious biases that permeate our workplaces and can hamper women’s leadership trajectories.

Biases are deeply ingrained from our earliest childhood experiences, from the toys we played with to the characters we watched on TV. As researchers in a recent Harvard Business Review article note, “Most fair-minded people strive to judge others according to their merits, but our research shows how often people instead judge according to unconscious stereotypes and attitudes.”

The cumulative sum of those assumptions that we carry into our professional lives can have a devastating impact on women’s careers. So, where can businesses start?

First, integrate unconscious bias training into regular onboarding and ongoing training processes. It arms employees with the facts and empowers them to call out coded language in the workplace.

Second, set up mentorship programs. People tend to cultivate protégés who look and sound like themselves – a phenomena psychologists call “in-group bias.” Yet, in almost every industry, there are not enough women in senior management to mentor all the junior women. Formalizing mentorship programs that both early career women and men receive the sponsorship that is critical to advance can make a huge difference.

Third, have a trained, impartial observer sit in on new candidate interviews to watch for unintended bias and to provide feedback to the interviewer.

Lastly, launch a review of performance evaluation systems to understand what biases exist and develop strategies to address them. For example, linguist Kieran Snyder found that performance review evaluations for women were 33% more likely to contain critical feedback than men.

While businesses must continue to invest in bigger structural workplace policies, such as paid parental leave, addressing unconscious biases can have an immediate and positive impact on women’s leadership advancement.

126e751Meredith Sadin, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of California, Berkeley/UCSF


A lot of time has been spent wringing our hands about “the pipeline problem,” when it comes to women in leadership. However, in many industries, this is not a pipeline problem.

Raw data on the number of women studying STEM in college, and hiring and promotions can tell us a lot, but data can’t tell us the mechanisms underlying some of the imbalances we may see with respect to women in leadership. Data also can’t always tell us how to fix these issues (e.g., simply hiring/promoting more women can be a Band-Aid approach when dynamics haven’t changed within institutions/ organizations/departments). It also can’t tell us why women leave their jobs before they take on leadership roles.

Recent evidence suggests that some of the lack of gender parity in leadership roles can be traced back to unconscious bias in the workplace. For example, women are often on the losing end when it comes to being interrupted while they’re talking, negotiating, being perceived as less likable or competent, and receiving negative feedback for personal traits. Research suggests these differences exist, not because men and women are fundamentally different or because they are explicitly sexist, but because of the unconscious biases that arise in particular institutional contexts. This is uncomfortable for lots of women.

In a study on women who left their jobs in tech, one quarter of “women cited discomfort working in environments that felt overtly or implicitly discriminatory as a primary factor in their decision to leave tech.”

Recent research has suggested that when women bring unconscious bias to the foreground, they can mitigate its effects. However, this still puts the onus on women. If we all acknowledge openly that we hold these biases in the workplace and attempt to monitor them, we can be in this together and hopefully achieve parity for women in leadership positions. Additionally, we can reduce our knee-jerk reactions when we remind ourselves of commonalities we share – as opposed to our differences.


Join us at our annual Symposium to be a part of the conversation that could redesign what leadership looks like.

Rethink Leadership – 2015 Afternoon Symposium: Leadership in a Today’s Economy

When: Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 3:00-5:30 PM
Where: Gotham Hall, 1356 Broadway, NYC
Reserve your ticket now

This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

  • 25 Years of FWI History

    Watch this compelling video about how Families and Work Institute gave voice and research to a movement.

  • Work-Life Book Reviews

    Families and Work Institute launches Work-Life Book Reviews.

    fwi-book-reviews-graphicWe review the hot work-life books, both blog and video reviews, because you don’t have time to read everything.



    When Work Works

    www-award-logo-16-winThe most of effective employers in the United States provide everything from compressed workweeks to employee autonomy to paid time off to volunteers. Check out the best employers in your state here.