This article was published on October 24, 2017

Study debunks myth that women behave differently at work than men

Study debunks myth that women behave differently at work than men
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Harvard Business Review yesterday released the results of a study which determined women don’t behave differently than men at work. Despite the fact that they’re clearly treated differently, promoted less, and work for lower wages – the obvious biological differences between men and women aren’t the problem.

The real culprit is bias. Yes people, here we are in 2017, and we’re still trying to prove that women should be treated as individuals — not members of a team that only some people are on – because some of you still don’t understand why gender inequality is bad for everyone.

The vast majority of gender equality studies are conducted through analysis of anecdotal evidence or surveys. This form of information gathering is problematic and – in this writer’s opinion – almost useless. There’s nothing actionable to glean from knowing:

  •  Women do not advance at the same rates as men in the same positions within the same industries.
  • What percentage of employees in your office believe women have a lower rate of career advancement than men.

Sure, we can gauge the social climate in the workplace by understanding how leaders and followers feel about gender inequality, and there’s value in that. But figuring out where your team stands on the issue doesn’t provide any real assessment of actual bias against women.

What the researchers at Harvard Business Review did is different. They used technology to track the individual work habits of 100 people to determine, not whether men and women are different, but if they acted differently in the workplace.

The study was conducted using ID badges, with sensors attached, which tracked users’ location and movement data, proximity to other badges, and the volume of speech. The badges were identical to the ones worn by other employees in the company, and did not record any actual conversations or the content of exchanges, which weren’t important for the research and allowed the researchers to maintain privacy without alerting everyone that they were being monitored.

The Harvard researchers wanted to determine whether men and women conducted themselves differently, talked to different people, spent more time doing different things – you get the picture. If women and men are so different they deserve different rates of promotion and pay, it should be evident in the actual actions they take at work.

The researchers said in their report:

We went in with a few hypotheses about why fewer women ended up in senior positions than men: Perhaps women had fewer mentors, less face time with managers, or weren’t as proactive as men in talking to senior leadership.

There was no evidence that the participants of the study conducted themselves differently from one another based on gender. With almost startling “equality” they spent about the same amount of time interacting with both peers and leaders. Employees, male and female, also interacted in nearly identical ways with one another – there was no evidence whatsoever that the women in the company behaved measurably different than the men in the company.

Yet nearly half of entry-level employees at the company are female – with that percentage getting lower and lower at each subsequent “level” of promotion. Maybe this has something to do with why women aren’t sticking around — If I knew “my kind” weren’t often promoted, I’d be more willing to leave before reaching my career goals too.

The study suggests that the problem women face is bias in the workplace, not biology. At the very least, it debunks the idea that biology is why women can’t advance in careers at the same rate as men.

In our coverage of Google‘s firing of James Damore for speaking out against diversity programs, we posited that confirmation bias was responsible for the majority of his arguments.

Even worse, there’s congruence bias – the belief that because you tested a hypothesis successfully, you’ve proven it to be correct. Without testing any alternate theories you’ve proven nothing.

If you believe a woman is going to get pregnant and leave the company, and then she does – this reinforces your belief that women shouldn’t be promoted because they’ll just leave to start a family. Never mind that some women don’t want children, or can’t have them.

The Harvard Business Review study addresses the facts about these biases, it confirms that women typically leave the workplace earlier than men. It also recognizes several other statistics concerning the differences between male and female employees.

However, in debunking the idea that “men” and “women” behave differently at work, it shows that bias is responsible for workplace gender inequality.

The researchers stated:

Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated.This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to “lean-in,” for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

The results of the study indicate that, perhaps, we need to stop demanding women “step up” and “take charge,” by-and-large they aren’t in their own way.

Harvard Business Review’s study should be required reading for anyone in a leadership position – especially in Silicon Valley.

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