Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn't Close the Gender Gap: The Case for Gender Dynamics

5 min read | Susan Colantuono

Leading Women: Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn't Close the Gender Gap: The Case for Gender Dynamics

Generic unconscious bias training and its umbrella intervention, diversity training, have been around for decades, but they have still failed to close the leadership gender gap. In their article Why Diversity Programs Fail, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev argue that this is because too much diversity training is mandatory, prompting resentment and defensiveness from managers. “Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward,” they write.

Voluntary training, on the other hand, provokes a more positive response as well as better results. In these cases, Dobbin and Kalev report “increases of 9% to 13% in black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years out (with no decline in white or black women)."

Even when companies get it right—make it voluntary, use positive messages, engage managers in problem-solving, etc.—unconscious bias training won’t get more women where they’re needed most. Here are the top three reasons why unconscious bias training isn’t enough to get women into the c-suite:

3. Not all bias is unconscious.

Some men (and women!) consciously believe that women are inferior, incapable, and should not work outside of the home, and will actually defend these views quite passionately. Our global research has found that these views are more widespread in some countries than others—but avoiding those countries doesn’t guarantee that a woman will avoid contact with bias. In our globalized age, people emigrate all over the world with their belief systems intact. No matter where a woman works, she may encounter these very conscious biases.

The reality is that no matter what level a woman ascends to, she may encounter damaging conscious biases. For example the resignation from Uber's board of directors by David Bonderman over this exchange (which, if it hadn't been recorded and leaked would have meant he would probably still be on the board).

“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” said <Arianna Huffington who is also on the Uber board>.

“Actually,” Bonderman <manterrupted>, “what it shows is, it’s much likely there'll be more talking.”

Some of those beliefs are unfortunately not unique to other countries outside the USA. A Pew Research survey released August 2016 found that 56% of American men believe that “the obstacles that once made it harder for women than men to get ahead are now largely gone.” Yes, that’s right—most American men don’t believe sexism exists at all. This blindness towards sexism in others can lead men to develop sexism themselves.

Consider the commonly held conscious belief that attractive women are fair targets for sexual advances, and the assumption that any woman who has been harassed must have been “asking for it” in how she spoke, dressed, or otherwise presented themselves. These beliefs (which create hostile workplaces for women) are so widespread that it doesn’t take more than a glance at Facebook, Twitter or headlines to find Americans defending them.

2. Bias isn’t the only problem.

Not all adverse impacts on women's careers are caused by biases about women and men. Many are caused by narrow conceptions of leadership and career success that indirectly disadvantage women. For example, one commonly held mindset about leadership is that strong "leaders" must be authoritarian, subjecting his or her subordinates to rigid top-down control. This is not a style of leadership commonly used by women, who prefer more collaborative leadership style. In terms of Quigley and Baghai’s eight leadership paradigms, women are more likely to follow the model of “the producer and creative team,” than the “the general and soldiers.”

Because of this we often hear comments about women's unsuitability for leadership positions such as, "she's nice, but can she be effective?" As if leadership were incompatible with kindness! Ordering people around isn’t the only—or even more effective—way to get things done. The root of the comment isn't a bias against women, it's a mindset about leadership. But that mindset still keeps women from advancing in their careers as often or as swiftly as they should.

1. Bias isn’t the problem.

And the number one reason that unconscious bias training is insufficient is that it's not bias that's the problem. The problem lies with the talent decisions and actions that managers take based on their mindsets.

Which is why at Leading Women we talk about "gender dynamics" by which we mean the
 talent actions taken and decisions made based on the mindsets of managers. It's why we focus on leadership excellence and managerial competence. And why we help companies analyze the ways that “gender-neutral” talent and performance systems can unintentionally disadvantage women. These are the sort of deep and little-studied factors organizations must consider if they are going to level the playing field for women and close the leadership gender gap.

Address Gender Dynamics

NOTE: This blog post focuses on unconscious bias training as it relates to the impact on women. Leading Women has expanded our Inclusion work to go beyond gender and has programs for all of your diversity efforts.

Lead ON! 

Your Team @ Leading Women