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Identifying hidden barriers

Men and women are conditioned to expect different behaviours and traits from one another (this is called our 'gender schema').  To see this in action, check out this video where assumed roles are switched to the opposite gender.

In the workplace, gender schemas are not always a good thing, and it's often found at the heart of why women are being held back.  More often than not, we stereotype and judge one another without even knowing it.  Being aware that this is happening is the first step in changing our own behaviour and that of those around us.

Four common types of bias

1. Prove it twice

It's common for women to be held to higher standards than their male counterparts. Phrases like 'I'm not sure if she's ready yet' or 'It may be too early for her' are often used in holding women back, whereas men seem to through unquestioned and we are more willing to take the risk on them. Senior women have be known to be harder on younger women coming up through the ranks, making them 'prove' they have what it takes to get ahead – just like they had to.

2. The impossible balance

In order to get ahead you it helps to be both liked and respected.  When surrounded by male examples of leadership, a common strategy women use to get ahead is to 'act like a man'.  This invariable backfires as they are perceived as 'too masculine'.  Conversely if they are caring, show empathy or emotion they are branded as 'too feminine'.  This behaviour also prompts comments like 'no wonder she is not liked' or 'no wonder she is not taken seriously'.  Finding the right way to be a female leader is impossible – because there is no 'right' way to be a woman or a man.

3. Written off

Assumptions – even the well-meaning kind – are toxic to a woman's career.  When women announce that they are expecting a baby, men (and women) around them make mental career decisions on their behalf.  They often jump to conclusions that they have switched off, don't want to advance at work, can't handle the big assignments and won't be back after maternity leave.  Ironically this can affect women that don't even plan on having children – similar assumptions can be made just upon hearing a woman is engaged to be married.

4. There's only room for one

It's understandable when there are so few women in leadership to assume that come promotion time, if there is room for a woman, it will be for one of you. As a result, there is a risk that some women get competitive and focus on pulling their competition down while men operate under the assumption that there is plenty of room for them at promotion time.

Sheila Wellington
Institute for Women's Policy Research

In the commerce of the twenty-first century where knowledge and ideas have primacy, gender should not be a limitation.

Echoing ideas

A woman will mention something and it gets overlooked, four months later a man brings it up and suddenly its brilliant.

Objective requirements

Objective measures are applied more rigorously to women and more leniently to men.

Undervalued roles

Women often take up the lion's share of the office housework or get stuck in roles that are not valued as business imperatives. 

Last reviewed: 
23 May 2018