Second-Generation Bias Can Keep Young Women from Thriving

Second-Generation Bias Can Keep Young Women from ThrivingBecause overt workplace gender bias is less common today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, many emerging women leaders think of gender discrimination only theoretically, or as something that happens to other people working in extreme situations. They may not recognize subtle forms of gender bias (known as second-generation bias) even when it happens to them.

But educating younger women about the persistence and possibility of bias is key — because research shows that when they learn about it, they take proactive steps to counter it and accelerate their progress.

Hard to spot

“Second-generation bias is implicit gender bias,” according to Honorary Associate Professor at the University College of London, Alex Opoku, Ph.D., and Ninarita Williams, Project Manager at Transport for London. “It refers to the creation of subtle and ‘invisible’ barriers for women,” they write in summarizing their study of bias in the UK construction industry.

“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 the authors of “Women Rising” in Harvard Business Review. Because many men and women do not even notice the existence of subtle gender bias, they may unintentionally reinforce cultures and structures that support it, according to the article authors, Herminia Ibarra, Ph.D., Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, Robin Ely, Ph.D., Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, and Deborah Kolb, Ph.D., Emerita Professor for Women and Leadership at Simmons University.

How it shows up

Subtle bias may be revealed in our continuing to see and describe typically masculine characteristics as synonymous with those of leadership; workplace socialization attuned to male standards; a tendency to slot women into staff positions rather than line roles that are more likely to lead to the executive ranks; women receiving less mentoring and sponsorship than male peers; or women not being considered for international assignments based on preconceived ideas that they will not want to relocate.

A lack of role models and the strain of being the only woman at a meeting or in a department can also lead to subtle forms of discrimination. Where male leaders can readily find mentors who look like them, this is far more difficult for women, and especially for women of color. Research also shows that women receive less of the type of constructive feedback needed to address areas for development and advance in their careers.

Getting to solutions

Ibarra, Ely and Kolb assert that a major component of becoming a leader “involves a fundamental identity shift,” but that subtle gender bias can interrupt that. They advocate activities organizations can pursue to create contexts that support a woman’s desire to lead, and help others recognize her as a leader, as well as steps women can take to develop their own identity as leaders. They recommend:

  1. Educate everyone about second-generation bias. Because women have worked hard to be judged solely on their talents and accomplishments, many don’t have gender bias on their radar. Women even sometimes blame themselves for not succeeding if they don’t see the barriers they face. “We find that 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 scholars write. That can include putting themselves forward for leadership roles they are prepared for but may not have been offered; proactively seeking sponsors; and negotiating work arrangements that enable them to contribute most fully.

Men must also learn about how they may unintentionally support ongoing biases through the way that job descriptions are written, who they mentor and sponsor, or assumptions they make about roles well suited to women.

  1. Create safe environments for learning and growth. Especially as women rise in organizations and find themselves in male-dominated settings, it can cause them to become more risk-averse and less willing to stretch and experiment with new skills. Research also shows women often receive contradictory feedback to be both tougher and nicer, and that they are perceived as less likeable as they grow in competence where the opposite is true for men.

Women need safe coaching environments to evaluate such confusing messaging and how it impacts their leadership identity development. “Identifying common experiences increases women’s willingness to talk openly, take risks, and be vulnerable without fearing that others will misunderstand or judge them,” Ibarra, Ely and Kolb advise. “When they are grounded in candid assessments of the cultural, organizational, and individual factors shaping them, women can construct coherent narratives about who they are and who they want to become.”

  1. Build leadership purpose. Their third recommendation is for women to anchor themselves in their own sense of purpose rather than being defined by gender stereotypes. Being purpose-driven can help women take actions to advance their own goals, such as by building a robust network, advocating for stretch opportunities and negotiating boundaries.

It can be sobering for women, and especially for emerging leaders, to realize that gender bias remains in many workplaces today. But learning to recognize subtle biases better positions women to navigate them, address them and build a healthy sense of their own identity as capable leaders.