D&I Deep Dive

By WCM | D&I Deep Dive | May 21, 2019

What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women

The conversation about the treatment of women in the workplace has reached a crescendo of late, and senior leaders—men as well as women—are increasingly vocal about a commitment to gender parity. That’s all well and good, but there’s an important catch. The discussions, and many of the initiatives companies have undertaken, too often reflect a faulty belief: that men and women are fundamentally different, by virtue of their genes or their upbringing or both. Of course, there are biological differences. But those are not the differences people are usually talking about. Instead, the rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are inherently unlike men in terms of disposition, attitudes, and behaviors. (Think headlines that tout “Why women do X at the office” or “Working women don’t Y.”)

One set of assumed differences is marshaled to explain women’s failure to achieve parity with men: Women negotiate poorly, lack confidence, are too risk-averse, or don’t put in the requisite hours at work because they value family more than their careers. Simultaneously, other assumed differences—that women are more caring, cooperative, or mission-driven—are used as a rationale for companies to invest in women’s success. But whether framed as a barrier or a benefit, these beliefs hold women back. We will not level the playing field so long as the bedrock on which it rests is our conviction about how the sexes are different.

The reason is simple: Science, by and large, does not actually support these claims. There is wide variation among women and among men, and meta-analyses show that, on average, the sexes are far more similar in their inclinations, attitudes, and skills than popular opinion would have us believe. We do see sex differences in various settings, including the workplace—but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them. When facing dissimilar circumstances, people respond differently—not because of their sex but because of their situations.

The Multiple Dimensions of Gender Stereotypes: A Current Look at Men’s and Women’s Characterizations of Others and Themselves

We used a multi-dimensional framework to assess current stereotypes of men and women. Specifically, we sought to determine (1) how men and women are characterized by male and female raters, (2) how men and women characterize themselves, and (3) the degree of convergence between self-characterizations and charcterizations of one’s gender group. In an experimental study, 628 U.S. male and female raters described men, women, or themselves on scales representing multiple dimensions of the two defining features of gender stereotypes, agency and communality: assertiveness, independence, instrumental competence, leadership competence (agency dimensions), and concern for others, sociability and emotional sensitivity (communality dimensions). Results indicated that stereotypes about communality persist and were equally prevalent for male and female raters, but agency characterizations were more complex. Male raters generally descibed women as being less agentic than men and as less agentic than female raters described them. However, female raters differentiated among agency dimensions and described women as less assertive than men but as equally independent and leadership competent. Both male and female raters rated men and women equally high on instrumental competence. Gender stereotypes were also evident in self-characterizations, with female raters rating themselves as less agentic than male raters and male raters rating themselves as less communal than female raters, although there were exceptions (no differences in instrumental competence, independence, and sociability self-ratings for men and women). Comparisons of self-ratings and ratings of men and women in general indicated that women tended to characterize themselves in more stereotypic terms – as less assertive and less competent in leadership – than they characterized others in their gender group. Men, in contrast, characterized themselves in less stereotypic terms – as more communal. Overall, our results show that a focus on facets of agency and communality can provide deeper insights about stereotype content than a focus on overall agency and communality.

The Mixed Effects of Online Diversity Training

Although diversity training is commonplace in organizations, the relative scarcity of field experiments testing its effectiveness leaves ambiguity about whether diversity training improves attitudes and behaviors toward women and racial minorities. We present the results of a large field experiment with an international organization testing whether a short online diversity training can affect attitudes and workplace behaviors. Although we find evidence of attitude change and some limited behavior change as a result of our training, our results suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are not panaceas for remedying bias in the workplace.

We present results from a large (n = 3,016) field experiment at a global organization testing whether a brief science-based online diversity training can change attitudes and behaviors toward women in the workplace. Our preregistered field experiment included an active placebo control and measured participants’ attitudes and real workplace decisions up to 20 weeks postintervention. Among groups whose average untreated attitudes—whereas still supportive of women—were relatively less supportive of women than other groups, our diversity training successfully produced attitude change but not behavior change. On the other hand, our diversity training successfully generated some behavior change among groups whose average untreated attitudes were already strongly supportive of women before training. This paper extends our knowledge about the pathways to attitude and behavior change in the context of bias reduction. However, the results suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are unlikely to be stand-alone solutions for promoting equality in the workplace, particularly given their limited efficacy among those groups whose behaviors policymakers are most eager to influence.

D&I Deep Dive

D&I Deep Dive

A weekly curated series of articles, white papers, and top research pieces to keep you up to date on the latest topics on diversity & inclusion in the...

Read more
D&I Deep Dive
D&I Deep Dive

D&I Deep Dive

A weekly curated series of articles, white papers, and top research pieces to keep you up to date on the latest topics on diversity & inclusion in the...

Read more
D&I Deep Dive
StatCan Finds Just 19.4 Per Cent of Board Directors are Women

StatCan Finds Just 19.4 Per Cent of Board Directors are Women

“The perception is that we’ve made such great progress. But it’s just not the reality,” said Camilla Sutton, CEO of Women in Capital Markets

Read more
The Star

What is your reaction to the fact that the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will be chaired by a man?