Unconscious bias an obstacle to womens promotion

Written by Alexis Faber Tuesday 13 September 2016

In 2017, the UK government introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting. The gender pay gap is defined as “the difference between the average earnings of men and women, expressed relative to men’s earnings”.

According to research from the Office for National Statistics, skilled trade occupations (which include chief executives and senior officials, and managers and directors) are predominantly done by men, as they make up 92% of these sectors; these occupations tend to be highly paid. Conversely, women have the highest employment in caring, leisure and other service occupations with a 75.6% share. These occupations tend to be paid less well.

There is therefore a strong gender imbalance in top managerial and leadership positions, with women being very much in the minority. Also, even when they reach the top, women tend to earn less than their male counterparts.

Why is this?

A number of studies have found that one the reasons men tend to work in leadership positions is that both men and women associate male stereotypical characteristics with leadership and decision-making. It has been found that men tend to be perceived as “agentic” (e.g. being competent, independent, competitive, and confident), whereas women tend to be perceived as “communal” (e.g. being warm, good-natured, understanding, and caring).

This leads men and women to make an association between masculinity and effective leadership.

These stereotypes are unconscious assumptions which psychologists call cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are shortcuts that the brain uses to process the large quantity of information it constantly receives from the senses and the environment. Scientists estimate that the brain receives about 11,000 million bits of information from the senses per second, but it can only process 50 bits per second. Relying on pre-determined assumptions helps the brain cope with this constant process of information gathering and sorting by lessening its cognitive workload.

Here's the problem

However, unconscious bias is often unreliable because it can originate from assumptions and stereotypes rather than reasoned processes or careful research.

For example, in the case of traits that are perceived as “masculine” and those that are perceived as “feminine”, there is no evidence that in effect all women or most women possess the “communal” characteristics and that all or many men possess any of the “agentic” characteristics. These associations came from traditional stereotypes rather than careful analysis.

Further, and in any case, there is no evidence that a competent leader would only need the “agentic” characteristics to the exclusion of the “communal” characteristics. Therefore, there is no evidence that these unconscious assumptions hold true.

There is then a twofold problem with cognitive bias: (1) they are not based on logic, and (2) they are unconscious, so they are applied without realising. Therefore, when cognitive biases are applied without knowing to the recruitment and promotion of staff, they can lead to hiring a person because they fit in with a stereotype that is not based on logic or analysis. There is also an added danger that the more persons fitting in with existing stereotypes are appointed in leadership position, the stronger the stereotype becomes.

What can we do?

It is therefore important to understand unconscious biases and their effect on decision-making, especially in deciding about the promotion of people into leadership positions. Bringing unconscious stereotypes into awareness and assessing whether they are rational and helpful is essential in making sure that promotion procedures are based on logical, objective criteria, rather than on assumed merit. This helps companies select and promote actual, rather than perceived, talent, skill and potential to further the interests of the organisation.

Want to learn more about cognitive biases?

Check out this explainer


It is also important to have bias-free promotion procedures because women are likely to perceive that they are assessed by their performance and their skills rather than whether they fit in with a stereotype. The Boston Consulting Group has found that there is a link between strong financial performance and an empowered female workforce. Further, the UK Government has found evidence that bridging the gender pay gap could add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

Consequently, when women are engaged and involved in the workplace and they feel valued and respected for their skills and contribution, it is not only a win for the women involved, but there are tangible and concrete financial benefits for the organisation as a whole.

Therefore, the case for moving on from outdated unconscious stereotypes and to embrace an evidenced-based idea of leadership is strong from a viewpoint of diversity and inclusivity but also for the financial performance of the organisation. Understanding and setting aside cognitive bias in the promotion process is an important step in this direction.