Does Your Organization Perpetuate Gender Bias?

March 9, 2018

Learning to identify and counter chilly climate behaviors is one way that women can promote gender equality. But what can managers, Heads of Talent and CEOs do to combat gender inequality The article below outlines what we (at all levels) can do to promote gender equality. 


In the wake of recent high-profile harassment scandals, the issue of gender equality in the workplace has taken on an Increasingly urgent tone. However tempting it may be to label sexual harassment as the problem, recent scandals are in fact a symptom of a much larger issue: Women have historically been seen as less-than their male peers, and consistently lace bias, discrimination, and an all-around uneven playing field in business.

In order to increase female representation in the leadership ranks (and reap the benefits of diversity in the workforce), organizations must approach this issue through a human capital strategy lens. We cannot hope for safe and fair organizations without first critically evaluating the talent practices that may be perpetuating gender inequality. This means thinking broader than the typical approach to diversity and inclusion. Business leaders must think holistically about the policies, processes, and embedded behaviors that exist in our organizations, and consider creative and well-rounded approaches to promoting equality across our workforce.

We cannot hope for safe and fair organizations without first critically evaluating the talent practices that may be perpetuating gender inequality.

How does your organization perpetuate gender bias?

  1. Women are evaluated differently during the talent acquisition process

A brief search of job boards or a casual coffee break with a colleague will reveal stones of women fighting gender bias by downplaying their femininity during interviews. For instance, they may not wear wedding rings, take extra care to not mention their families (especially children), or wear suits rather than skirts. Despite the reported success of these tactics, it begs the question - why do these women feel the need to change how the look, dress, or act?

Beyond the affinity bias which is the dangerous tendency for hiring managers to prefer (and hire) candidates that look like themselves, there are many ways that women experience an uneven playing field during the hiring process. In fact, even the femininity of a woman's name may her of being offered an interview. Need more evidence that bias impacts talent acquisition? In the 1970s and 1980s, many symphony orchestras revised their audition policies to involve "blind" auditions with a screen concealing candidates from the jury. In 1970, female musicians made up 5 percent of the top five U.S. symphony orchestras. By 1997, with this slight alteration to the selection process, they grew to 25 percent. This small, seemingly insignificant adjustment to the process was found to increase a woman's chance of being advanced out of certain preliminary rounds by 50 percent!

"A lot of organizations have reached where they are today by embracing one singular success profile," says Ernie Paskey, Partner, Aon. "This reinforces the 'like me' philosophy. The thinking is, ‘Jim, the white male, was very successful in his role, so we need someone exactly like Jim.' However, when organizations adopt an acquisition strategy that instead shows multiple paths to success and demonstrates that diverse individuals are capable of success, it itself to a more diverse employee base - which brings more diversity to leadership positions."

Assessment Tools

McLagan's 2017 Talent Pulse Study shows that less than half of financial firms are currently using assessment tools for hiring. Today's assessments predict key outcomes such as higher individual performance, greater potential, culture fit, and retention. They also help firms mitigate bias in the selection process. A tangible competitive advantage is awaiting firms that take advantage of the latest science in hiring.

  1. "Chilly" messages are conveyed to women in male-dominated fields

Contrary to the beliefs expressed in a Google engineer's infamous internal memo women are not underrepresented in tech, or the broader workforce, due to true psychological differences between men and women. Rather, co-workers' implicit biases and the cultural manifestations of those biases create what experts call a "chilly climate " In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research posits (with significant evidence) that the biases linking women with "socially-oriented work" actually result in self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, the underlying belief that women should not be in STEM fields is precisely What pushes women out Of STEM fields - and Who can blame them for wanting to pursue a more welcoming environment?

One way organizations can warm their climate is by establishing a global competency model that promotes broad organizational values. "There has been a trend toward more aspirational competency models," says Amy Mills, Associate Partner, Aon."These models inform behavior based on values. They support the end state of what the organization is looking for, without dictating a certain style or approach. This allows individuals to apply different skills, tendencies, and philosophies to achieve the same end state. By being less prescriptive, organizations can promote a more open-minded view of what 'good' looks like." Approaches like these help to remove gendered expectations around roles, and allow employees to use their unique strengths to carry out job responsibilities.

What does a “Chilly Climate” look like?

  • Interrupting women (research shows that women are interrupted twice as often as their male counterparts, and even more often if they are a woman of color)
  • Male-gendered language (salesman, overuse of "guys" or "gentlemen" when addressing groups)
  • Assuming that men deserve credit for group assignments
  • Assigning tasks according to stereotypes (women take notes, or supply water or coffee during meetings)
  • Referencing a woman's appearance rather than her work contributions
  • Coaching men more often than women
  • Offering more social opportunities for men (e.g., happy hours, "guys' nights")
  • Assuming that women lack stereotypically male strengths (e.g., math, technology, sports)
  1. Women miss out on key developmental opportunities

Mentoring relationships are widely recognized as an impactful way to develop and retain talent. For instance, research shows that mentored individuals tend to receive higher compensation and more promotions than non-mentored individuals. Mentored individuals also tend to be more satisfied with their career, more likely to believe that they will advance their career, and more likely to be committed to their career.

So where does gender come in? Interestingly, although unsurprisingly, having a history of white male mentors is to higher compensation. Furthermore, female protégés with male mentors are associated with more career development than anv other gender combination.

You may be thinking, "Great! Let's build a formal mentorship program that pairs early career women with executive men." Although logical, the that women experience less coaching, role modeling, social, counseling, and friendship functions than do their male counterparts in formal mentorship programs. In other words, when male mentors are mandated to take on a female protégé in a formal mentorship program, it could actually result in both sides feeling unsatisfied — failing to serve its intended purpose. This means that women will reap more benefits from forging informal mentoring relationships, as opposed to mandated programs.


Radford’s 2016 Talent Pulse Study shows that 44% of technology firms and 20% of life sciences organizations are offering formal mentorship opportunities to employees.

What can we do to promote gender equality?

What can women do...

  • Challenge yourself to evaluate the roles you're targeting: Are there other roles that would be better suited for your unique skill sets? lust because you haven't seen a woman in that ADIe does not mean a woman cannot do that job
  • Learn to identify and counter chilly climate behaviors (e.g., continue to speak even when interrupted; do not accept stereotypically feminine tasks like note-taking or coffee-making; learn more practical strategies in Jessica Bennett's book, Feminist Fight 6111b).
  • Identify a male mentor who is willing to offer career guidance. Help him understand how to help you, and create clear parameters around your relationship.

What can managers do...

  • Communicate non-gendered career paths to all colleagues, focusing on skill sets needed for each role.
  • Educate yourself on chilly climate behaviors and address them head on (e.g., rephrasing "salesman" as "sales executive," steering conversations away from sports, or ensuring that the credit for group work is appropriately distributed).

What can heads of talent do...

  • Assess "typecast" roles across your organization through talent analytics.
  • Conduct a climate audit by conducting focus groups or surveys geared toward understanding women's experiences across the organization _
  • Create mentorship guidelines and educate executives on the importance of mentoring early female talent.
  • Encourage blind resume review by removing names before passing them along to hiring managers.

What can CEOs do...

  • Increase representation of women in senior leadership positions, and ensure that women in male-stereotyped roles are visible examples to the organization.
  • Challenge the executive team to each take on one female mentee to facilitate her development and increase the pipeline of women in leadership.

Conclusion: How Aon Can Help

  1. Develop a career pathing framework that shows diverse avenues for success
  2. Craft a competency model that promotes the culture and values against which all employees are assessed
  3. Implement an objective, robust assessment process to retain diverse candidates
  4. Create an employee value proposition that promotes diversity and keeps diverse hires on board long after they are selected
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