A father and son are driving and have a serious car accident. The father is killed instantaneously. The son is in critical condition and he is rushed to the hospital. In the ER room, the attending surgeon looks down at the patient and says, “I can’t operate on him, for he is my son.”
How can this be?
Whether you are stumped or found this to be an easy brain-teaser, the point of this riddle is that we have engrained notions of who does what in society (i.e. men are surgeons whereas women are presumably nurses). These notions are based on our experiences, and in reality, a surgeon is more likely to be male than female. In other words, our gender biases can be innocent and completely “reasonable” from a probability point of view.
In a recent study sponsored by the New York organization, the 92nd Street Y, 90% of Americans think that geniuses tend to be male. Both men (93%) and women (87%) believe this. Again, this belief is understandable. Historically, men had more opportunities than women, including access to education and the right to perform certain occupations. And we are taught about historical figures of genius from an early age. Just think about Albert Einstein, Lord Byron, or Amadeus Mozart, for example.
The problem with the genius “gender gap” is that the intelligence gender bias may become self-fulfilling. According to one of the organizers of the 92nd Y’s Genius Festival, the implications are bad from a female confidence point of view. She says:
“If you don’t think you’re capable of something, it makes it a lot less likely that you will reach for it,”
Moreover, even if you’re a woman who plows through life with a lot of confidence, you still may be judged differently (i.e. unfairly). We’ve previously written about the way academics are judged differently by their students depending on their gender. So how does this affect women in the office?
In certain male dominated fields (e.g. law, finance, medicine and finance), many of the legendary figures are men. Its not surprising given that the population for leadership figures draws on far more men than women to begin with. But its not just a “pipeline” problem. Performance review analysis show us that women are judged based on personality characteristics far more often than men. And if men are more likely to be “brilliant” or “geniuses”, how is a woman to compete with that expectation?
If men are geniuses, do women simply have to work hard in order to compensate? Do women have to be more communicative, more collaborative, and more social or socially intelligent, in order to compensate?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, but if you’re a woman at work, its worth being aware that you may be held to different standards. Unfair as this may be, it might also help you navigate the judgments and expectations that lead to landing jobs, promotions or raises.