Any woman working in today’s corporate culture is no doubt familiar with the numerous excuses used to explain the underrepresentation of women in corporate management. A veritable cottage industry has emerged in the form of books and articles offering advice on the common mistakes women make that result in slowed career growth. The advice for women looking to advance in the workplace often shifts the burden onto women to change their behavior if they want to secure a prized promotion. Women are advised to “lean in,” or told that the plum corner office awaits if only they would stop being so nice. A common theme in these messages is that the culprit of the gender gap is surprisingly women themselves. Women, through adherence to socially engrained behaviors, are actually holding themselves back. Research says otherwise.
This is not to disparage the advice offered by women like Sheryl Sandberg or Dr. Lois Frankel. There is certainly a much-needed place for advice on how to succeed in the corporate world. But what about the women that avoid all the common pitfalls and mistakes and still lose out on the corner office? A new study in the Harvard Business Review utilized sensor technology to study in real-time whether some difference in women’s behavior can explain the persistent gender gap at the highest levels of seniority. The result of the study may surprise some.
Researchers found that “[w]omen had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role,” which largely debunks the myth that gaps in advancement are driven by women’s unwillingness to network or get valuable face time in with the boss.
Researchers also found “that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation.” Again, the common myth that women’s approach to work is the root of the issue was largely debunked. Most profoundly, the research revealed the behavioral similarities between male and female employees “held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.”
In other words, the gender gap in rate of advancement and promotion is not a product of some difference in women’s behavior, but in how that same behavior was perceived by decision makers.
The takeaway here is not that gender bias is an issue reserved to the corporate boardroom. Any employment attorney that litigates gender discrimination cases will tell you it is not. Rather, the key here is the validation of the significant role bias can play in an employee’s career trajectory.
For the countless women who have taken their seat at the table, who have stopped playing so nice, who have implemented all of the tried-and-true advice, yet still have failed to rise through the ranks at the same rate as men, at a certain point you are allowed to stop reflecting inward on how your own behaviors are holding you back. Perhaps the problem is not your feminine behavior. Perhaps the problem is impermissible gender bias—a systemic problem whose solution is not found in a pithy-titled book.