BOSTON -- It's been the routine of many professional women for years: when dealing with subtle (but complicated) gender issues at work, turn to a female colleague or mentor for advice. But a new study released today by the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO) at the Simmons School of Management suggests that contrary to popular belief, the most effective help in resolving subtle gender dynamics at work may come from a male boss.
The study also found that despite success in combating many forms of blatant gender discrimination, covert bias is alive and well.
A survey of more than 300 professional women at the Simmons Leadership Conference in 2010 reveals that virtually every one of them has experienced subtle gender bias issues, also known as second generation gender bias, at work. CGO's research suggests that the prevalence of second generation bias in the workplace counteracts initiatives to develop pipelines of women leaders and help close the women's leadership gap; and may further explain why the percentage of women in senior or top-level positions lags dismally behind.
The women polled reported receiving much help in dealing with subtle gender issues from personal circles; professional networks outside their organizations; and bosses, mentors, and peers within their organizations. They reported that they received the most help from spouses/partners, and more from women than from men. However, when the kind of help was connected to perceived success in dealing with second generation gender bias, it was bosses, particularly male bosses, who were the most helpful.
"It may be that help in dealing most effectively with second generation gender bias must come from people who have formal authority in the organizations, and who are themselves unencumbered by gender issues; they are the ones best positioned to change the situation," said Dr. Spela Trefalt, a Simmons School of Management professor who co-authored the study. "Our research indicates that alliances between women and men are essential for closing the women's leadership gap, and that senior male managers need to be actively engaged in the change process."
Second generation gender bias includes work cultures and practices that appear neutral on the surface, but can result in differential experiences and treatment of women and men. Examples include performing 'invisible' work, such as resolving problems and bringing teams together, which receives little to no credit; exclusion from key networks necessary for advancement; and being hyper-scrutinized while in leadership roles.
CGO's research suggests that these subtle gender issues are still deeply embedded in organizational cultures and that these work norms shape women's paths to leadership. The authors argue that these dynamics play out in the context of formal systems of hiring, promotion, and compensation. Dealing with them requires leadership from the top of the organizations.
"If not understood and managed, they can have powerful and unanticipated consequences for women's leadership attainment and consequently for organizational performance," said Trefalt.
The study authors are Spela Trefalt, faculty at the Simmons School of Management; Deborah Merrill-Sands, former dean of the Simmons School of Management and current dean of Mills College's; Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business; Deborah Kolb, professor emerita, Fiona Wilson, faculty, and Suzanne Carter, an MBA candidate, all at the Simmons School of Management
The School of Management and HP have conducted research at the annual Simmons Leadership Conference since 2003. This year's conference, "Passion and Profession," will be held April 26 at the Seaport World Trade Center Boston. For more information, please visit the Simmons Leadership Conference website.
The Center for Gender in Organizations, the School of Management's research center, works to enhance organizational effectiveness by improving gender equity in the workplace. HP is a technology solutions provider to consumers, businesses, and institutions globally.
The Simmons School of Management is the only business school in the world designed specifically to educate women for power and principled leadership and accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The program is featured in The Princeton's Review's The 301 Best Business Schools 2010 Edition and ranked #1 in MBA programs in the U.S. in the category "Greatest Opportunities for Women."
Simmons College is a nationally recognized private university. It offers an undergraduate education for women, and renowned coeducational graduate programs in health sciences, education, liberal arts, social work, library and information science, and communications management, and the nation's first MBA program designed specifically for women.