Addressing 'second-generation' gender bias

Gender bias

What can be done about the startling statistic from the National Center for Women and IT that only 9 percent of IT management positions are held by women? In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb explore the "second-generation" biases that hinder women's progress in becoming leaders and suggest actions to jump-start improvements.

Given that IT prides itself on innovation, leaders need to take action now to work toward equal representation. Here are three good places to start:

1. Develop an education program to address second-generation biases. Educate women and men by focusing on promoting awareness and understanding. The four biases are:

* A lack of role models. With only 9 percent of IT management positions held by women, there are few role models for women to emulate. Linda Kekelis, executive director of Techbridge, wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog post that role models "help dispel stereotypes.… Their enthusiasm conveys that these careers are personally and professionally rewarding."

* Gendered career paths and work. This bias centers on antiquated organizational structures and practices. "Feeling less connected to one's male colleagues, being advised to take a staff role to accommodate family, finding oneself excluded from consideration for key positions — all these situations reflect work structures and practices that put women at a disadvantage," Ibarra, Ely and Kolb wrote.

* A lack of access to networks and sponsors. Women have fewer people vouching for them, and women's networks — groups that provide assistance and support — are weaker than men's. In "Women Rising," the authors discuss the story of "Amanda," whose career begins to stall because she "lacks presence" and "isn't sufficiently outspoken." Her career and confidence regained their footing "when she was assigned to work with two clients whose [chief financial officers] happened to be women…. Each in her own way started taking the initiative to raise Amanda's profile. One demanded she be present at all key meetings, and the other refused to speak to anyone but Amanda when she called — actions that enhanced Amanda's credibility."

Given that IT prides itself on innovation, leaders need to take action now to work toward equal representation.

* Double binds. A double bind occurs when, no matter what action is taken, it will be wrong. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. As an example, the article discusses typical performance feedback given to women: "They need to 'be tougher and hold people accountable' but also to 'not set expectations so high,' to 'say no more often' but also to 'be more visible,' to 'be more decisive' but also to 'be more collaborative.'" Additionally, "behavior considered assertive in a man is seen as aggressive in a woman and thus denigrated rather than rewarded."

2. Create "identity workspaces" to support women's transitions to bigger roles. Create coaching relationships, leadership programs and peer support groups to help women's self-identification as leaders. "Identity workspaces" are needed to help keep women's careers on track for leadership roles.

3. Anchor women's development in a sense of leadership purpose, not perception. Emphasize substance over style. "Overinvestment in one's image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes," Ibarra, Ely and Kolb wrote. "People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure and less capable of self-regulation."

Federal agencies have long emphasized workplace equality, and the IT community puts a special emphasis on meritocracy, so important building blocks are there. But 9 percent is unacceptable, and it's time to refresh and re-energize strategies to hasten closure of the gap.

About the Author

Catherine Howard, M.P.M., is a senior consultant for MindPoint Group and is published by the American Society for Public Administration on strategy, performance and change management.

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Reader comments

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 Catherine Howard Washington, DC

Second generation biases differ from first generation in that they are subtler, more cultural and appear more neutral at the superficial level yet, “reflect masculine values and life situations of men who have been dominant in the development of traditional work settings. These deeply entrenched gender-biased dynamics exist in our culture, norms, and organizational practices and directly impact hiring decisions, promotion, and salaries.” This article may interest you:

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 Catherine Howard Washington, DC

From the National Center for Women and IT, "According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 74 percent of women in technology report “loving their work,” yet these women leave their careers at a staggering rate: 56 percent of technical women leave at the “mid-level” point just when the loss of their talent is most costly to companies. This is more than double the quit rate for men."

Sun, Dec 8, 2013

I agree with the earlier comments about reverse discrimination (affirmative action) being hypocritical. By the way, what characteristics differentiate "second-generation" gender bias from other gender bias?

Tue, Dec 3, 2013 radicalizing_white_male

As a 40-something white male on the bubble between 'staff' and 'management', this article screams reverse discrimination. I'm happy to compete against all qualified comers - black, brown, green, purple, male, female, or none of the above. Just don't tilt the playing field against me. I'm a very laid back guy, but articles like this create 'angry white males'. If you're looking for a systemic fix, start back in the pipeline. You need high school STEM working. You need training programs at the community college and university level (these are currently not exactly full of females - or many americans...). But do not - do NOT - put the burden on my career prospects, or inflict unqualified 'quota hires' on my workplace (injury to insult). Anything that walks the IT management walk is a valuable commodity, regardless of reproductive equipment. Conversely, actively bad IT management, particularly without accountability, is poisonous. Don't add another barrier to an already incredibly challenging area.

Tue, Dec 3, 2013

"Gender Bias" is a two way street and people making a big fuss about it are usually engaing in a lot of hypocrisy. There are some careers dominated by women, but we almost never hear about "Gender Bias" in those cases. For the past four decades we have been seeing a lot of programs throughout this country that encourage organizations to hire women over men. We have seen a big push to get women ahead of men in education and I have personally witnessed universities once dominated by men to be now dominated by women. Schoools that once only taught men were attacked endlessly and now have both sexes while schools only for women were promoted. What have we got with this trend? These programs often come with added taxpayer cost (usually indirectly so most do not see it) and tend to result more in negative financial impact to society than positive gain. Despite all of those social programs and political correctness, our society has seen worsening conditions when you look at civility, crime, and drug addiction, among other things. With ever increasing crime we see a greater portion of our population in jails - who are primarily men, but you never hear about "Gender Bias" in the prison populations. The numbers of women in IT may say something about our society and the IT community. But to say that it is something bad, implying something must be done about it (usually at a significant cost to others), indicates that the author is missing the big picture. To improve IT requires real measures - not pandering to some sex, racial, ethnic, or other group that is based on something other than business or technological skills.

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