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News & Blogs: Women & Diversity

Biases — big and small — hold women back

Thursday, January 22, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Ancella B. Livers

You know, sometimes, you hear something or read something and later read it again, or maybe just think about it, and you realize that you've dealt with it before. But suddenly, this time it strikes you in a different way and you hit yourself upside the head and say, "Wow, did I miss that before!”

Well, that recently happened to me, when I read something about women’s career goals. But I didn’t say "Wow.” Instead, I was sad or disappointed, confused or something. I haven’t figured that out yet either.

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I was preparing to give a talk about women. So, I looked at some books, papers and articles, re-reading them for nuggets that would be particularly pertinent to my audience. Finally, I came across an article that was published in the Harvard Business Review in September 2013 — a good article that has been cited frequently and probably discussed even more frequently. "Women Rising: the Unseen Barriers” is about something the authors call "second-generation gender bias.” The article says second-generation bias "erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”

Beyond having a mentor or sponsor to succeed in the corporate world, women should understand there may be a second-generation bias operating. The author recommends that women create "safe identity work spaces,” such as coaching relationships, women’s programs and the support of other female employees. These safety zones encourage women’s learning and help them grow into their own leader identities. The article also suggests that women consider anchoring their development efforts in a sense of leadership purpose. By deliberating on this intent, rather than others’ gender perceptions, women can focus more on learning from mistakes and concentrate on creating shared goals.

Behind the bias

I have to say, I agree with everything this article says. I mean, I really do and yet there’s something that keeps gnawing at me. I finally realized that my problem is the notion of second-generation bias. I’m not saying it doesn't exist. It does. I know this. The problem is that I don’t really like the idea of mommy-and-daddy biasing having little baby second-generation biases. And, I particularly don’t like the idea of people getting so caught up in the little baby second-generation biases with their cute little non-obvious ways of keeping women in place, that they forget that women of color and some others are still hanging out with the first-generation biases.

For example, women of color occupy only 11.9 percent of managerial and professional positions, according to the Center for American Progress. Women of color hold only 3.2 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies and more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have no women of color as board directors at all.. All of these teeny-tiny percentages are not random, nor do I believe they’re solely because of the baby second-generation biases.

I guess I’m concerned that by focusing on those cutely phrased, but nonetheless problematic little second-generation biases, we’ll have stopped paying attention to the big whopping in-your-face adult biases. Women of color can’t afford that. We can’t afford for organizations to stop recognizing that some old behaviors that keep us out of senior management jobs are still pretty evident.

In many cases, women of color are still overlooked for positions, not because a long-held organization process subtly overlooks all women, but because there are still not-so-subtle managers that overlook women of color. The first-generation bias that is filled with negative race- or ethnicity-based stereotypes still exists and results in very, very real workplace consequences as the numbers above suggest.

I fear that if we focus on second-generation bias, people won’t believe that first-generation bias still exists. I also fear that if we focus only on what’s happening to "all women,” women of color will be subsumed by the generality of the statistics.

I know that what I’m feeling is fear. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not also truth.

As senior faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership solutions. She has interacted with thousands of managers and executives over the past 18 years, fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly those focusing on African Americans and women.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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