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Perception is reality when it comes to women in the workforce

“Gender inequality may not be due to how women actually act but in how people perceive their actions,” according to a recent study published in the Harvard Business review and conducted by a company called Humanyze.

This might come as a shock to many men (and some women) who argue that bias exists because “women don’t lean in” or “they don’t get enough face time with senior management” or “women don’t speak up enough for themselves.” And if you bought into any of these generalities, you would be dead wrong, at least according to this study. In fact, the team that conducted the research, found “that men and women behaved exactly the same in the workplace, got exactly the same amount done in a day, spent exactly the same amount of time at face-to-face meetings with their superiors and got similar annual review scores.” So why do women still make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men and why are they extremely underrepresented in the leadership ranks of Fortune 500 companies? According to Ben Waber (founder of Humanyze), “it all comes down to simple gender bias.”

Unfortunately, similar conclusions have been drawn from previous research and although the subject is finally getting more attention, the fact remains that we have not made that much progress in eradicating bias. For example, a study which was published over five years ago in PNAS by Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues, showed that bias is not only real but that it can also be perpetrated by both men and women. In that study, they presented two groups of scientists with resumes and applications with identical qualifications except one had a name traditionally associated with women and one had a name typically associated to men. When the scientists were asked to “rate” the applicant, the man got significantly higher scores in “competence and hireability” and yet the resumes and applications were exactly the same. The most disturbing part about the research was that both men and women that were reviewing the applicants were equally guilty of the bias.

So almost everyone agrees there is a problem, but what can be done about it? Based on a 2016 survey by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., there is still a long way to go to narrow the gap in pay and advancement between men and women in the workforce. However, there are a few steps that companies can take now that could make tangible differences.

The first is to actually set a goal for gender equality and to measure progress against it. While most CEOs agree that it is an important issue (seventy-eight percent reported that gender diversity is a top-ten priority) many do not have definitive goals in place of how they plan to address it. Paying lip service to the issue is not enough – companies have to make it a strategic priority in their overall operating goals.

The second step that businesses can take is to invest in gender diversity training and make a commitment to explaining to all employees how crucial it is for their success. This isn’t just about doing the right thing – companies that have more diversity in their organizations perform better than their competitors in many cases. And with the U.S. population becoming more diverse every year, companies are putting their business at a clear disadvantage by only hiring and promoting white men. More diversity can reap real financial benefits.

Third, companies need to encourage dialogue around the issue. And this should not just be limited to leaders in the organization. Every employee, regardless of their seniority level, should be made aware of the gender bias and encouraged to speak up if they see a problem. The gap can only be narrowed once it is truly acknowledged and actual forthright conversations start taking place.

Finally, women need advocates within their organizations who will coach and encourage them to negotiate for themselves. One bright spot is that women are starting to ask for promotions and compensation increases as much as their male counterparts. Yet when women do speak up for themselves, there is often an underlying judgment that they are not team players or they are too demanding. Having an advocate or sponsor internally gives women a sounding board and helps them to realize that these assumptions are simply stereotypes. In fact, many companies are starting to invest in mentorship programs and seeing real benefits. One example of this is a program that was started by American Express which gives rising women the opportunity to be paired with another senior leader within the organization.

So while the reality is that gender bias does exist, there are steps that we can all put into practice to work towards eventual parity. After all, women represent almost half of the U.S. workforce and there is power in sheer numbers. Women must continue to leverage and reflect that power.

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