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Persistent gender gaps and short-term solutions

Anna Steinhage's picture

In 2014, Australian startup founder Evan Thornley gave a talk at a technology startup conference about why he likes to hire women. So far, so good. However, things quickly deteriorated when he explained that part of the reason was that women were “still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender”, illustrated by a slide that read “Women. Like men, only cheaper”.
While the ensuing media outcry quickly forced Thornley to backtrack on his comments, the reality his slide so eloquently put into words is not so easily revised. Even in Silicon Valley, considered one of the most forward-thinking industries in the world, women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts.

In addition to being underpaid, women are also still underrepresented. Across some of the most desirable employers in the U.S., women make up only 29% of employees.  According to the latest World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, women are underrepresented and underpaid in workforces worldwide.
These numbers are striking, given that women outnumber men at universities more than ever, are more likely to earn a degree than their male colleagues and equally likely to earn a PhD. Nevertheless, they are less likely to enter traditionally male fields such as computer science, or to attain leadership positions (also a traditionally male field). When women do pursue these careers, they are less likely to be hired, paid less, and given less authority than men with comparable qualifications.
In most developing countries, gender gaps in economic participation and employment are even wider. Women face legal and/or cultural barriers that restrict their ability to work or earn money, and many work outside the economy, often in unpaid family work. Those who are able to work struggle to break into higher paying work domains that have traditionally been dominated by men.
Stepping up the effort
In response to persistent gender gaps, over the last few years companies, governments, and NGOs have pledged millions of dollars to increase gender equality over the last few years. The World Bank headquarters was the first location of an international institution to attain the first level of EDGE certification, which externally assesses organizations’ status and progress on gender equality. 
Despite these efforts and advances, overall progress is slow. A recent report predicted that at the current rate of progress, even women in the U.S. would not earn as much as men until 2152.
Why are gender gaps so persistent?
Research suggests persistent gender stereotypes as the root of unequal representation and evaluation of women. Stereotypes are generalizations about social groups that are shared among members of a society. For example, men are generally believed to be more competitive and less nurturing than women. People do not need to agree with stereotypes to be influenced by them, the simple knowledge of a stereotype is enough.
As a result, even people who disagree with gender stereotypes evaluate men as more suitable for traditionally male roles, and as performing better on male tasks, compared to women. These gender biases influence career choices, hiring decisions, performance evaluations, and promotions,  sustaining gender gaps to this day.
Unfortunately, gender stereotypes are highly ingrained and have not changed much over the last 30 years. Some studies, however, raise hope that exposure to female role models can change implicit attitudes over time. For example, having female village chiefs increased the likelihood that male villagers in India associated women with leadership activities, as opposed to domestic activities. It also raised girls’ aspirations and parents’ aspirations for their daughters: The percentage of parents who believed that a daughter’s occupation should be determined by her in-laws was 9 percent lower in villages that had had a female chief for two election cycles, compared to villages that had never had a female chief.
Short-term wins: Combine policy with behavioral interventions
In the meantime, organizations need to continue to tackle gender gaps at all levels. While some actions need to be taken by regulators or top management, such as removing legal barriers for women or allowing more flexible working arrangements, other interventions can be implemented in the short term. Behavioral and psychological research has identified a number of strategies that effectively address gender biases and can reduce or eliminate the influence of stereotypes on career choices, recruiting, and evaluation:
(1) Don’t play to stereotypes
We associate fields that have been traditionally dominated by men with male characteristics - think about what picture comes to mind when you’re asked to visualize a typical computer scientist. For example, research shows that even with the necessary skills, women are less likely to apply for a job if the job description invokes a male stereotype. While we cannot change the number of female computer scientists overnight, organizations can attempt to avoid portraying traditionally male careers as such, for example by

  • Avoiding masculine words (e.g., “dominant”, “competitive”) in job descriptions and striving for gender-neutral language.
  • Paying attention to study or work environments and creating spaces that are “stereotype-neutral”. For example, researchers found that replacing video games and Star Trek posters in a computer science classroom with plants and nature posters made female students more interested in computer science.   
(2) Promote role models
Both women and men partly base career choices on how successful they think they can be in a field. However, women often underestimate their performance, for example in STEM fields. One common way to challenge these beliefs is to show examples of successful women. The more women feel that they can relate to and identify with a role model, the more likely it is that they will feel empowered and encouraged. Role models can even have a positive influence from a distance: Pictures of successful women have been shown to increase women’s performance in a typically male task.
  • Promote contact with role models that girls and women can relate to. This can mean interacting with a role model that does not fit the stereotype of the field (e.g., a successful physicist who does not conform to the typical physicist stereotype) or interacting with a successful woman. In youth employment projects, such contact can help young women develop and realize aspirations to enter into fields that are traditionally dominated by men and often more lucrative.
  • Spotlight female role models in schools, universities, and workplaces – through pictures, examples, and highlighting achievements. The Harvard Kennedy School, for example, now includes portraits of several female leaders in its buildings, which used to exclusively portray male leaders.
(3) Reduce room for biases
In recruiting processes, gender biases influence ratings of candidates and hiring decisions because evaluators rely on stereotypes rather than basing their decision on the actual performance of the candidate. In other cases, evaluators redefine the criteria for success in a job to match the credentials of their (unconsciously) “preferred” candidate. These biases can be reduced by eliminating room for stereotype influence. 
  • Make evaluations gender-blind: Many orchestras have successfully reduced biased (male-favoring) hiring decisions by having candidates audition behind a screen. Online application platforms such as Applied enable organizations to evaluate materials without knowledge of applicants’ demographics or even educational background.
  • Commit to specific evaluation criteria before reviewing applications 
(4) Don’t blindly rely on strategies that are intuitively appealing
Studies have shown that some intuitively appealing strategies are ineffective and can even result in more stereotyping and bias.
  • Don’t motivate or incentivize accuracy: Motivating or materially incentivizing people to make accurate and unbiased decisions does not reliably reduce gender bias. Similarly, telling people “Try not to stereotype” does not reduce stereotyping.
  • Don’t try to suppress stereotypes: Suppression can make stereotypical knowledge more accessible in people’s minds so that people are more likely to make decisions based on stereotypes after they stop suppressing.
  • Don’t tell people that the vast majority of people hold stereotypes and are biased. Telling people that “most people are doing it” can make it feel ok to succumb to stereotypes and thus, result in more stereotyping.


Submitted by vivaran on

Having worked at two of the biggest public health research organizations in India, I have noticed that there is no woman at the senior most levels of management, starting with the Vice President level. It is very confusing, as women outnumber men at the lower and mid management levels, however, are not nominated into the senior most circles. Hence at any management level meetings, the panel scrambles to get at least one or two women who can make the panel gender savvy!
However, when I interacted with most women at the mid management level, most did not have an ambition to make it to the senior most levels, as though they were content doing what they love and balancing their personal lives. Hence, it is not always true that women are not getting opportunities, I guess if one pushes, there will be some path forward. Maybe there is a need to get more data in these situations.

I agree, it would be interesting to get more data on this. I think you’re right in that not all women want to be in the most senior positions – not all men do either. Gender equality is about levelling the playing field: Providing all opportunities for men and women and ensuring that women do not have to push harder than men to advance.

Submitted by Nikita Singla on

Great insights! Interesting example of having female village chiefs for men to associate women with leadership roles in the most traditional settings.
Make evaluations gender blind - addresses the concerns of Heidi-Howard case presented by Sheryl Sandberg.

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