Second Generation Forms Of Gender Bias In The Workplace –What’s Going On In Yours?

I read a great paper recently by Robin J. Ely (Harvard University), Herminia Ibarra (INSEAD), and Deborah M. Kolb (Simmons College), titled ‘Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs’.

One of the things they discussed in the paper is that research is showing that ‘…the causes of women’s persistent under-representation in leadership positions has thus shifted away from a focus on actors’ intentional efforts to exclude women to consideration of so-called second generation forms of gender bias, the powerful yet often invisible barriers to women’s advancement that arise from cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men. (Calas and Smircich, 2009; Ely & Meyerson, 2000; Kolb & McGinn, 2009; Sturm, 2001)’

They go on to provide some examples of second generation gender bias, including men continuing to dominate in organizational hierarchies, acceptance of certain leadership behaviors as being more acceptable in men than in women, and people’s natural tendencies to advocate for and sponsor others that are like themselves. They comment that ‘…these subtle yet pervasive forms of gender bias may impede women’s progress by obstructing the identity work necessary to take up leadership roles. The result is self-sealing: Women’s under-representation in leader positions validates entrenched systems and beliefs that prompt and support men’s bids for leadership, which in turn, maintains the status quo. This perspective on gender and leadership calls for a new developmental agenda for women in, and aspiring to, leadership roles.’

As you head into your workplace this week, take a look around you and think what your responses would be to the following questions:

  1. What examples of second generation gender bias are you seeing in your own workplace?
  2. To what extent do you feel your organization’s leadership is aware of those forms of second generation gender bias and willing to tackle them?
  3. Taking into account what forms of second generation gender bias are exhibited in your workplace, what would you like to see on the developmental agenda for women in your organization?

I encourage all of you to look around, identify what is going on within the walls of your organization, and find constructive ways to dialog on these issues with leadership in your organizations to build awareness and act as a catalyst for change.