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Managers who think gender bias isn’t a problem make it worse

A study of vets looks at gender bias

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Women continue to experience gender bias and discrimination – including lower pay and performance evaluations – even in workplaces where they are in a majority, according to a study of vets.

Bias in the workplace appears to be perpetuated by people who don’t think it exists. The finding suggests that simply hiring more women won’t solve gender discrimination in the workplace.

A UN report published earlier this year found that, globally, almost 90 per cent of people hold some kind of bias against women, and half of men felt they had more of a right to a job than a woman. Gender pay gaps persist, too. In the US, women earn around 85 per cent of what men do, for example.

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To explore whether the same trends exist in fields in which women are well-represented, Chris Begeny at the University of Exeter, UK, and his colleagues turned to veterinary medicine – a field that was almost entirely male in the 1960s in the UK, but today has a workforce with more women than men. “It has been over 50 per cent (female) for well over a decade now,” says Begeny.

Begeny’s team first asked 1147 vets, 67 per cent of whom were female, if they felt they had been treated differently, negatively or in line with stereotypes based on their gender. Respondents were also asked if they felt their colleagues acknowledged their competencies, value and worth.

The women in the study reported significantly more gender bias, and were more likely to feel their value and worth weren’t recognised in the workplace, says Begeny, even when the team accounted for the respondents’ role, experience and working hours.

In a second study, Begeny’s team put together fake performance reviews for 254 managers, 57 per cent of whom were female, to assess. The reviews detailed fictional employees’ experience and qualifications, and included positive and negative feedback. The reviews were identical apart from the fact that one described a female “Elizabeth” while another described a male “Mark”.

Managers were asked to rate the competence of the fictional people, and to estimate how much they might be paid if they were working at the manager’s own clinic. Again, Begeny’s team found evidence of discrimination: Elizabeth was seen as less competent than Mark, and was recommended a lower salary. “On average, it was an 8 per cent pay gap,” says Begeny.

But his team found that not all managers discriminated against women in these ways. “It was only among those who said they believed that gender discrimination wasn’t an issue in their profession any more,” says Begeny. “Ironically, the ones who think discrimination isn’t happening are the ones who are keeping it alive.”

Those who were seen as less competent were also less likely to be encouraged to develop new skills or seek out promotions, which could have ramifications for a woman’s entire career, says Begeny. It also means that some managers who say they judge employees on their merits are still perpetuating discrimination. “It sounds like a very reasonable principle to hold, but it’s an insidious one,” says Begeny. “They may not realise that their evaluations of that person’s competencies are fundamentally biased.”

Sara Ashencaen Crabtree at Bournemouth University, UK, is unsurprised by the findings. “You could say the same of most institutions and universities where there has been a proliferation of women entering academia – albeit unevenly across disciplines – over the last few years,” she says. “But there is still plenty of evidence around to show that there continues to be a significant gap that has yet to be closed in terms of rank, pay, role, general progression or anything other than a bit of tokenism in women’s leadership positions now and again.”

Other fields and large companies that are currently working to hire more women will need to be aware of the stubbornness of the problem, and take further steps to diminish discrimination, warns Begeny. “Increasing gender diversity does not mean that they have accomplished gender equality,” he says.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba7814

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