Second Generation Bias – A Subtle but Powerful Presence

Deeply embedded and frequently unconscious cultural and organizational biases can be challenged both through small “wins” and by establishing policies that take a whole organization rather than a women-only approach.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor September 2, 2014
Second-generation gender bias is making its way into the lexicon of women’s workplace issues as a subtle, covert, and at times unintentional, phenomenon that thwarts women’s power and potential. This form of bias is complex because, unlike the first generation of overt, explicit, and conscious bias against women in the workplace, second-generation bias can occur in hard to-pin-down incidents such as the way a job description is worded or never being asked whether one is interested in being promoted or taking an overseas assignment.
“Second-generation bias is unconscious, and most of it results not from intent, but from a system that is inadvertently unfair and results in a disparity of outcomes and numbers,” said Herminia Ibarra, Ph.D., the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. Dr. Ibarra works at the campus in Fontainebleau, France.
Daily-life instances
Second-generation gender bias functions in ways that leave women out of top positions and out of the loop of decision-making. That’s because most top executives are men, and they — as do people in general — develop relationships on the basis of what they have in common with others — and they have more in common with other men than they do with women, said Dr. Ibarra, who studies informal networks. “You’ll have more in common, superficially, with someone of the same gender,” she said.
“In most organizations, which are male-dominated at the top, men will have their most important work relationships with people like them, and women with people not like them. So it’s harder for women to create a clique outside of the workplace, and if you don’t have that, you get less gossip, less trust, less coaching, and less of the ‘inside scoop.’ All of that common ground based on informality is harder to build (for women).”
Because men so often occupy the top positions at companies, the implicit model of what a great leader looks like is a man, Dr. Ibarra said. “If a woman has a different style, it might look not assertive enough, or not enough this or that, because the subconscious model is from one group — men — and not from a diverse group.”
Dr. Ibarra co-wrote an article about second-generation gender bias with Deborah M. Kolb, Ph.D., the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professor for Women and Leadership (Emerita) at Simmons College School of Management and head of Negotiating Women Inc.; and with Robin Ely, Ph.D., the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for culture and community at Harvard Business School. The article, which appeared in the Harvard Business Review’s blog network, focused on the need to educate everyone about second-generation gender bias and noted that “small wins” can turn the tide.
Dr. Kolb said one example is how leaders and organizations that insisted women didn’t have leadership skills were shown how policies that require a worker to be on call 24/7 or to be “aggressive” made it virtually impossible for women to get those jobs. Another executive complained that women didn’t apply for open jobs, even though the job descriptions called for people willing to relocate, able to report to duty at odd hours, and take a tough stance on workers who proved to have disciplinary problems. Further, research shows that men will offer themselves up for promotions or bigger jobs even if they don’t have the attributes of the job description, while women will shy away, Dr. Kolb said.
“We started to write realistic job postings, rather than aspirational ones, and we got equal numbers of men and women applying,” she said, noting, for example, that some positions may require that the candidate have a diversity of experiences but may not truly require the person to move to a corporate headquarters.
Pointing to another instance, engineers at one company were expected to be able to work 24/7, so that flexible work arrangements seemingly had no place in the way work got done. In such cases, Dr. Kolb explained, “It is not about individuals; it’s about organizational and cultural assumptions and practices.” Dr. Kolb believes one of the ways to fight the second-generation cultural bias is for women to negotiate in a smart way about issues that would otherwise set them back. She cited a female chief financial officer of a large manufacturing who relocated in order to obtain her dream job. Yet after two years in the job, the CFO’s family issued an ultimatum: They would move back to their previous location, with or without her.
“She negotiated with her boss to create a dual office — spending part of the time in the field and parts in the other places,” Dr. Kolb said. “By doing so, she paved the way so that no one else in the company had to feel that a requirement of taking a senior leadership job entailed relocating to corporate headquarters.
“We think changing it (second-generation gender bias) will be with such ‘small wins,’” Dr. Kolb said. “It’s about trying to look at how you could change work so you could make it possible for people to work and have a life.” Taking such proactive positions confronts what Dr. Kolb described as a “fix the women” assumption at many companies and institutions.
Another example is performance reviews, where women often get into a double-bind situation, she said. “When a woman’s name came up, the word ‘nice’ was used, but never with a man,” Dr. Kolb explained. Her research showed that men and women are evaluated more on their performance if they are rated together rather than each one separately, so that could be one solution. Such a change can then produce positive results for both men and women, she said.
As for women in STEM positions, including engineers, being dissuaded, Dr. Kolb said a cultural belief in many companies that they must “wear a badge of a tough guy when they have bad management” can be challenged. One example is the common assumption that engineers can be managed only by someone who is an engineer, even if that person is a bad boss. “I say, you have to learn how to manage,” Dr. Kolb noted, so if a fellow engineer is a bad boss, he or she needs to be retrained or replaced, even if it’s with someone who is not an engineer.
One female manager who holds conference calls with 3,000 people who report to her works through these kinds of gender-based issues during every meeting she holds, Dr. Kolb said. Such discussions work better than top-down, legislative measures in getting people to see what’s happening, she said. “These remembered words from someone who propelled her to move to the next step.” little seeds will take,” she said. “It’s like letting 1,000 flowers bloom.”
Dr. Kolb concedes that the fight is against a deeply embedded cultural belief, even now, that women don’t belong in senior leadership positions. “Many people believe, deep down, that the world works better when men are in the workplace and women are at home,” she said.
The role of personal beliefs
Kathleen Buse, Ph.D., adjunct professor, Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, earned her Ph.D. in management following a struggle to find a fulfilling career in engineering once she left Eastman Kodak Co., primarily because of family obligations.
Dr. Buse noticed that certain corporations in her new, more conservative Midwestern location had trouble keeping women engineers. She found in her studies on the topic that a key factor was women’s self-esteem and their own personal beliefs that they could succeed— so, unlike Dr. Kolb, who believes men and women will always be competitive with one another, Dr. Buse sees part of the conundrum as one involving deeply personal matters. She believes in teaching young women about the need to be financially independent and to focus on achieving on their own merits, rather than continuing to uphold the traditional, and frequently unexamined, ways that women are taught to “fight” one another and vie for men to “take care” of them.
“Women with higher levels of a belief in themselves to succeed had higher levels of commitment to their careers in engineering,” Dr. Buse found in her studies. She suggests four ways for women to build self-esteem:
  • Take active steps to do something that provides confidence in order to build up one’s ability to succeed based on past successes.
  • Surround oneself with people who provide positive feedback. “We need to hear we’re good,” Dr. Buse noted. “I was on a panel about STEM careers, and one woman said every time she wasn’t believing in herself, she remembered words from someone who propelled her to move to the next step.”
  • Seek out role models.
  • Deal with the physical aspect of lacking confidence or having anxiety by doing activities that make one feel more confident. In many cases, that may mean doing yoga, meditation, cardio, or other exercise. 
Having a bad boss at the start of one’s career is another key factor in female engineers leaving the profession. Dr. Buse found this to be the case both in her research and in her own personal experiences. At one of her previous jobs, Dr. Buse had more awards and accomplishments than her male colleague, but their boss promoted the man without discussing the promotion with her.
“I went to my boss. He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you’d want it.’ He didn’t know I would want to be promoted,” Dr. Buse said. “The second-generation gender bias is in my boss’ head. He didn’t consider that I wanted to be promoted. But I never thought I had to tell him. “The rules are different for women, but no one tells us that,” Dr. Buse said. And it can take a long time to figure this out on one’s own. She advocates special training for women, especially in STEM careers, so they can recognize such subtle biases. Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management, for example, has set up an executive education program for women in STEM in part to provide them the skills to navigate male-dominated environments.
The Leadership Lab for Women in STEM offers professional and leadership developing for women in technology driven, traditionally male-dominated professions. “Part of it is (women) understanding themselves, what they want to achieve — and really articulating it,” Dr. Buse said. “We need to tell women they need to voice what they want.

“Universities teach skills to solve problems of a technical nature,” Dr. Buse said. “When someone graduates in engineering or with a STEM degree, we’re not giving them the skills they need to be successful in an organization. This Leadership Lab bridges the gap.”

She noted that though more than 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are now conferred to women, women represent only 10.5 percent of employed engineers nationally, a share that has remained stagnant since the mid-1990s.
Deeper understanding: a prelude to change
Dr. Ibarra offers her own list of ways to overcome second-generation gender bias:
  • Educate women that it’s not their fault; don’t point an accusing finger. “A lot of times, because it’s subtle, women think it’s them and their own individual choices,” Dr. Ibarra said. “It is helping people understand what this is about as a prelude to working together to change it.”
  • Create psychological safety in programs such as mentoring opportunities or women’s development seminars. “It’s not easy for people to talk about these things,” Dr. Ibarra said. “They feel they’ll be told, ‘You’re prejudiced or you’re just being a victim.’ We’ve found that it’s really important for women to share their experiences with others who’ve had similar experiences so they know they’re not crazy, and they can get ideas on how to handle (tough) situations.”
  • Never lose track of the goal of helping women become better leaders.
Elaborating on this last point, Dr. Ibarra explained: “The so-called ‘Fix the Women’ programs are aimed at how do you have more gravitas, how do you look, come across, have executive presence? It’s the means to an end — not the be all and end all.” Further, Dr. Ibarra said, “I’ve seen women exposed to well-intended things and be disgusted. Their response is, ‘I need to be myself; be authentic; I don’t want a total personality makeover. It’s about getting something important done and not the walk and talk.’
“The general idea is not to check a box — like, OK, we put in a mentoring program, check, but to think specifically about how the pieces come together and what’s really getting in the way (of women’s progress).”
Dr. Ibarra sees hope for progress in today’s leaders such as Hillary Clinton, who is widely believed to be planning a run for the presidency in 2016; Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer; Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In; Anne-Marie Slaughter, D.Phil., president and CEO of the New America Foundation and author of a widely discussed article in The Atlantic magazine titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”; and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. “People are seeing a diversity of role models,” Dr. Ibarra said. “I look to see the number continue to inch up.”
A multilayered approach is critical
Brian Rubineau, Ph.D., assistant professor of organizational behavior at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, says changing the internal workings of an organization is extremely difficult because solutions must be multilayered. “Trying to focus on one (issue) at a time results in very little progress,” said Dr. Rubineau, who has studied workplace inequality for 13 years. “Many mechanisms combine to create inequality in the workplace.”
Indeed, efforts to create processes that are more gender equitable often backfire, Dr. Rubineau said. He cites recent research by Emilio Castilla, Ph.D., of MIT and Stephen Benard, Ph.D., of Indiana University showing that a formal, less-subjective process for rewarding employees with pay raises can still give rise to gender pay inequality where high performing women get smaller raises than similarly high-performing men.
“When a company uses a subjective process (to give pay raises), people may recognize it as such and check their decisions to make sure they are being fair,” Dr. Rubineau said. “But when they were told that the new procedure was meritocratic, they didn’t check themselves. New biases emerged.” The result was continued gender inequity, with the reasons going unexpressed. “There are common cultural biases that result in seeing women as being less competent,” he said.
Companies also struggle with explaining ongoing gender inequity. A company is more inclined to identify and try to act on a single likely explanation than a comprehensive solution, Dr. Rubineau said. One explanation, for example, may suggest addressing a shortage of women eligible to fill higher-level job openings, while another suggests dealing with women’s need to balance work and family. These lone efforts at greater gender equity are usually well-intentioned, and many even have buy-in from corporate leaders, but the benefits from single explanation solutions often end up being short-lived or much more modest than anticipated, Dr. Rubineau explained.
One reason may be that gender is such a sensitive issue, it can engender backlash, he added. “Gender is one of the first ways we learn about status differences,” Dr. Rubineau said. “If you want to change the gender dynamics of an organization, you have to change the organization fundamentally.”
Successful efforts to make the workplace more equitable take a whole organization rather than a women-only approach. Successful efforts focus instead on such things as safety, civility, respect, and “general” values for which there is broad support, he said. For example, it is often easier for junior men than for junior women to find informal mentors among senior staff. However, a women-only mentoring program may create resentment and would not last. Instead, formalizing the mentoring of both junior men and junior women is a less contentious way to level the field for men and women, Dr. Rubineau said.
One example of a successful organizational change occurred on an oil rig where nearly all of the workers were men. They felt forced to display the most masculine behavior in order to gain respect, even if that meant ignoring safety rules and getting into fistfights to earn a job. The culture improved when the workers on the oil rig were encouraged to obey safety rules and treat one another with respect.
“A number of men reflected on how the experience of working on the (oil rig) platforms had changed them,” according to the results of the organizational behavior research. “For some, the impact was personal, such as learning to be more attentive to ‘personal and interpersonal relationships,’ to comport oneself differently when exercising power (e.g., not to use profanity), to give others a chance to demonstrate knowledge, and to see others’ pain when they made a mistake. Others commented on how the work force as a whole had changed, with the men becoming ‘kinder, gentler people,’ able ‘to get in touch with the more tender side of each other.’”
“The idea is that it’s not about women,” Dr. Rubineau said. Yet, he was also quick to point out that fair processes are not enough. “It is the fundamental change around equity that is important,” he said. “Fair processes — such as parental leave available to both men and women — in the absence of fundamental change can exacerbate inequality.”
An example: A woman who takes parental leave may find herself on a “mommy track” with other disproportionately female workers whose commitment to the organization is suspect and who are seen as less ambitious and, as a result, are less likely to advance.
But in companies where parental leave is common, men may take the leave even though they often have fewer care-giving demands at home. As a result, men may have more flexibility to take the leave to enhance their skills or do something else that’s beneficial to them, while women have less flexibility to do so.
“The policy is fair and applies to all equally, but in both cases, men disproportionately benefit,” Dr. Rubineau said. “You must create fundamental organizational change for true equity for everyone, and women will benefit.”
Positive indicators
Signs that the women’s optimism may be justified pop up each week, including the news on Feb. 10 that Mary Barra will earn 60 percent more than her male predecessor in her first year running General Motors. The first woman to run a major automaker will receive a pay package worth $14.4 million, with most coming from a long-term stock bonus plan, compared with her predecessor, Dan Akerson’s pay and bonus totaling $9 million for 2013, according to CNNMoney.
On the same day, Feb. 10, stock photography company Getty Images announced a partnership with, Sandberg’s organization, to create a library of 2,500 images that feature new, more empowering portraits of women.
Separately, nonprofit research group Catalyst reported on Feb. 4 that women represent from 36 percent of the directors of big-company boards in Norway to 26.8 percent in Finland due to mandates or public-reporting requirements, and that the numbers are growing. Though women in the United States represented 16.9 percent of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies in 2013 — a figure stagnant for eight years — greater efforts are being made to boost that percentage.
As Dr. Kolb concluded, integrating women into senior levels is a real challenge. Yet once a dialogue gets going, possibilities for change open up, she said. No one says it will be easy. 

This content originally appeared in SWE’s Spring 2014 publication. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, asamarxhiu(at)