Systemic Bias: From the Classroom to the Boardroom

by Julie Graber | on 13 Sep 2019

I ran across a couple of articles by Paolo Gaudiano (@icopaolo) that I thought were great reads on systemic bias.

In Girls Beat Boys At School, And They Should Beat Them At The Office, Too, Gaudiano responds to an earlier New York Times op-ed that suggested that the very behaviors that earn girls the highest marks in school (hard work, attention to detail, extensive preparation) may be the very things that hold women back at work (such as the likelihood that women will not apply for a job or promotion unless they have 100% of the skills and background required).

Gaudiano found the Times op-ed’s suggestions for addressing the problem most troubling, given their focus on how girls should be encouraged to change - all based on the “implicit assumption that the way boys do things is better, and that girls should strive to change their behaviors to match the behavior of boys.”

As Gaudiano notes, “over and over again, we see systems in which the metrics of success are defined by men, and systematically undervalue the strengths of women.”

The same is true in corporations, where women often find themselves at a disadvantage. And while it’s true that we’ve backed away (somewhat) from suggesting to women that they behave more like men, we still have a tendency to nudge them in that direction, with workshops on salary negotiations and coaching to build their self-confidence.

Gaudiano discusses this bias in performance metrics in a related post (Are Women Penalized for Being Team Players?). He says that this bias, coupled with an inability (or unwillingness) in most organizations to place value on the the very strengths women bring to the table (facilitating the collective contributions of groups for example) is responsible for a “vicious cycle,” where men set the rules based on their strengths/norms, which in turn favors the advancement of men up the managerial ladder. And as more men advance, the bias is perpetuated.

Gaudiano concludes that “it is critically important to realize that this is a shortcoming of our corporate policies and management tools, not of the women whose careers may suffer because of our inability to quantify the impact of their actions.”

it is critically important to realize that this is a shortcoming of our corporate policies and management tools, not of the women whose careers may suffer because of our inability to quantify the impact of their actions.

by Paulo Gaudiano

Back to the original post, Gaudiano says schools aren’t off the hook either; he suggests that they need to examine their practices as well, to “ensure that girls from the earliest stages are encouraged to nurture their unique skills, and learn that society values these skills.”

Bottom line: fix the systems, not the women.

Tags:  Systemic Bias