The business case for having more women on boards and in top executive positions is clear. It has been shown that when there are two or more women on a board of directors, the organization performs better on ROI by 66%. When companies are more racially and gender diverse, they outperform those with the least by 35% and 15% respectively. If any other investment opportunity presented this kind of potential gain, businesses would have jumped. But they haven’t. Some say it’s due to a lack of understanding of the business imperative, others point to a pipeline issue or a lack of mentoring. However, neuroscience points us to reasons that may not be in our current consciousness, creating barriers to capitalizing on those would-be gains.
Here are four types of gender bias that are contributing factors, the awareness of which is only the first step toward parity on boards and in top leadership positions.
Studies show that performance of those in the dominant, “in-group” (in this case white men) is based on their potential, not on their accomplishments. Therefore, male performance is over-estimated compared to that of women. Because women are held to stricter and higher standards, the odds of them progressing are lower.
Performance Attribution Bias:
When men and women perform an act, men are given credit more often while women are judged more harshly. Men are thought to have innate brilliance, where as women are thought to have made it due to a stroke of luck or help. Who would you like your board? Someone who you think is brilliant, or someone who got there because of pure luck?
There is a general belief that women cannot be both good mothers and good performers, therefore women with children are less likely to be hired and promoted. Could this be a contributing factor in decisions made about women coming on to boards who are of mothering age?
Women have the unique challenge of having to choose between being seen as competent or being liked, walking a tightrope between being too nice or being assertive, which often puts them in a double bind. Leadership qualities are still attributed to masculine qualities like being assertive, confident and direct, but when women present with this style, they are chastised.
Of course, there are many other types of unconscious bias, however these four in particular make it infinitely more difficult for women to break through into the ‘boy’s club.’ Awareness, mindfulness and behavior change are the antidotes, as is honest and open dialogue about the real impacts of bias and how to overcome them to achieve more balance.