Most media regarding women in the workplace tend to emphasize individual choices women ought to make to improve their own lots and ignore very real cultural limitations and institutional practices that, over time, hold women back. Plus, they are almost always limited to the perspective of white women who are citizens of the U.S., with advanced educations and socioeconomic status. This happens to be my perspective, and I find it tiresome to listen to us argue with one another when many women in the world would love to have our “problems.” So as a general rule, I tend to ignore these discussions altogether and stay occupied with my own small universe of responsibilities.
But is my attitude part of the problem?
I’m now asking myself this question because I was sucked in by the media blitz surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. My science brain was set off by the discussions of behavioral cues and how humans — men and women, as individuals and collectively — respond to them. Humans are nothing if not adaptable, and women can be particularly adept at adapting to real or perceived barriers. I bought the book.
Sandberg’s primary concern is that even after 50 years of social, educational and professional progress women are still not equally represented in government and private sector executive leadership. She acknowledges that her emphasis is limited in scope largely to educated women in the developed world. But she argues that achieving true leadership equality should be a top priority, both to capitalize on all our human resources in advanced economies as well as to help women in the developing world.
Lean In explores, through the lens of Sandberg’s life experiences, the gap between the major advances in women’s educational attainment and the stagnant growth of women in leadership roles. She discusses the societal and institutional problems women face, but she also holds up the need for women to recognize how and when our adaptive strategies to social cues influence our behaviors, habits and life choices. All of which, little by little, create our own barriers to achievement.
Jennifer Raymond, neurobiologist, associate professor, and associate dean in the Office of Diversity and Leadership at Stanford University School of Medicine, agrees. In the recent Nature special issue on Women in Science, Raymond writes, “I have a bias against women in science. Please don’t hold that against me.” She goes on to discuss her results on the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious associations. Her results revealed that she associates men with “science and career” and women with “liberal arts and family.” This is coming from a woman who is a leader in both academic science and on diversity issues and runs a lab at a major university.
Raymond points out that a growing body of literature has demonstrated the biases individuals hold regarding competency based on gender, race and all sorts of other attributes. She notes that despite the real evidence of gender bias and how it manifests in our actions and decisions, we tend to remain in a state of denial. Even her peers in academic science, those folks most attuned to detecting and attacking bias, are unaware of how gender bias may be affecting their decisions and are uncomfortable discussing it. Gender bias is not just a problem in scientific fields; people tend to rate women as less competent than men in leadership capacities.
“Cultural transmission of bias” is powerful, notes Raymond. Her own young daughter, who has a scientist for a mother and is surrounded by female scientist role models, showed a bias against women in science when she took the Implicit Association Test. Based on the growing, cross-generational evidence on the topic, Raymond concludes that cultural transmission will ensure that unconscious gender bias will be with us for quite some time to come.
What is Raymond’s prescription? Suppress the symptoms.
She defines unconscious biases as “mental habits that tend to dominate our gut reactions,” and that “one can suppress undesirable mental habits such as gender bias through deliberate, conscious strategies.” If we fail to act consciously and redirect these habits, Raymond points out, our brains will craft perfectly rational justifications for our behavior, even when bias is at the root. Social and psychological research tells us we must “retrain our brains.”
Raymond identifies several useful ways to identify and suppress gender bias in professional settings. One of those ways is that women should overcome their own internalized gender bias. This internalization of bias is exactly what Sheryl Sandberg asks women to assess for themselves and take decisive action to address. We cannot ignore the subtlety of unconscious habits behind our individual behavior and expect to manifest changes in our circumstances. For example, women may be less likely to self-identify and compete for advanced job roles or assignments due to negative social cues that tell us competition is not expected from women or is even — gasp! — unattractive.
Not all women — or men — aspire to executive level positions. We make conscious decisions based on a myriad of values, including the choice to lead in other capacities. But women especially should be aware of the subtle ways our own bias may affect our decisions at crucial stages in our lives. Helen Shen, in her contribution to the same Nature special issue on Women in Science — “Mind the Gender Gap” — shows how the series of adaptive choices women make from the beginning of their educations through their professional training can undermine their capacity to reach leadership roles. Shen quotes Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, regarding the need for multi-faceted solutions: “I don’t think there’s a single obstacle. I think there’s a whole series of phenomena that add up.”
I recognized patterns in my own decision-making over the years similar to those identified in Shen’s analysis. Those patterns are a little too close for comfort. For example, I made what I thought at the time were fairly explicit choices about graduate school and my professional trajectory. Looking back, I can see how those decisions were also influenced by some heavily implicit assumptions about whether or not I could excel in work settings and still thrive in other aspects of life that have great value to me. How might I be allowing internalized bias to affect me still today? Institutional and social support systems buttressed by sound governmental policies are absolutely critical to affect change and help women develop as leaders. But as Sandberg concludes, “Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open.”
Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran, in slightly different form, in The Nature Conservancy’s Science Chronicles.
Raymond, J. 2013. Most of us are biased. Nature 495:33-34.
Sandberg, S. 2013. Lean In: Women, Work, & the Will to Lead. Alfred A. Knopf.
Shen, H. 2013. Mind the gender gap. Nature 495:22-24.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.