working women

Sexism in Hollywood Matters to Women Everywhere

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Shonda Rhimes, as photographed by Art Streiber for the New York Times

Over the weekend, we were fascinated to see how gender equality looks — and feels — in an industry that isn’t well-represented (yet!) in our database: Hollywood.

Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, wrote a long piece based on interviews with more than 100 men and women working in entertainment about why women are so under-represented in the film industry:

  • Only 30.2% of speaking or named characters in the top 100 grossing fictional films were women
  • 1.9% of the directors of the top 100 grossing films were directed by women in 2013 and 2014
  • Only three movies released by the 6 major studies had a female director last year
  • 95% of cinematographers, 89% of screenwriters, 82% of editors, 81% of executive producers and 77% of producers were men in 2014

As Dowd points out, these stats look even worse than the dismal numbers of women in the C-suite, Silicon Valley, or at the highest levels of U.S. government.

While it might be tempting to dismiss this issue as irrelevant to the vast majority of working class women, we think that’s the wrong way to look at the problem.

We believe that gender inequality is relevant for all women, wherever it lives. But the media is a special and important case simply because the industry has immense influence and touches us all — even for those of us who consume relatively little of it.

We can’t avoid the images, the story-lines, the cliches and the stereotypes regardless of how little entertainment content we consume. Our children — boys and girls — soak up up these ideas. And the older they get, the more they  believe in the story lines generated by a surprisingly homogenous group of people.

The problem is chicken-and-egg. How can we collectively make progress on our unconscious biases about gender roles and capabilities if they keep being reinforced? If Hollywood keeps producing stories where surgeons, CEOs, Presidents, executives, firemen, superheroes, and movie directors are men — and do all the leading, controlling, saving, and commanding — it becomes that much harder for the next generation of women to relate to those roles and life paths.

Of course we can make “choices” to consume different content. But that’s only realistic up to a point. That’s why we stand by the efforts by Dowd, the Geena Davis Institute and these brave, individual women who have spoken out (sometimes hilariously succinctly) — at some risk to their own careers and reputations — to spread awareness of sexism in Hollywood.

Thank you for telling your stories — it matters to women everywhere.

Fairygodboss is committed to helping women in the workplace. 


working women

If Men Are Geniuses, How Do Women Compete?

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.

working women

Gender Stereotyping Starts In School

It turns out that gender stereotyping starts early.

By gender stereotyping I’m specifically referring to our ideas about men and women, and the standards they should be measured against.  Whether we are conscious of them or not, people apply one set of standards to men and another set to women.

How early do these different standards begin?  A recent analysis suggests they’re in place by the time people attend university.  Northeastern University Professor Benjamin Schmidt analyzed the reviews left by students on the website  What he found was that the following words were commonly used to describe male professors:

“smart”, “idiot”, “interesting”, “boring”, “cool”, “creepy”

The words that were commonly used to describe female professors were:

“sweet”, “shrill”, “warm”, “cold”, “beautiful”, “evil”

In other words, intelligence is something students noted with respect to their male teachers (e.g. they are either “smart” or an “idiot”) whereas for female teachers, personality characteristics mattered more (e.g. they are either “warm” or “cold”).

We’ve previously written about similar findings regarding different female and male standards in written job performance reviews.  What this means is that our gender stereotypes are engrained early and continue on into the workplace.  In other words, we take our gender baggage with us to the office.

Admirable as it may be that some companies have decided to try to train their workforce on gender bias, its not realistic to think most companies will ever do this for their employees.  And bias training may not effectively counteract years of any individual’s engrained habits.  So what is a woman to do?  Every individual must be aware of the standards and lens through which they are judged.  If you believe you are suffering from bias, you can try to talk to your manager or HR department.  But if this fails — or more likely doesn’t seem socially acceptable or possible in the first place — you might have to face the hard decision of choosing with your feet.  You may have to consider looking for a different position or for a role in a company where you think that you will be judged more fairly.  This isn’t an easy decision, but if you think you will not be fairly compensated or promoted where you currently are, you might not have much of a choice.

working women

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Yesterday we wrote about the fact that creating awareness of our unconscious biases can actually cement them.  If that’s true of our unconscious thoughts, it must also be true of our conscious beliefs.  And apparently most Americans believe that women will not be equal when it comes to leading corporate America.

Pew Research Center has just put out a report summarizing survey results that show American men and women think that even with more time, women won’t achieve equality in corporate leadership.  The reasons?

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According to the chart above, most people think it has little to do with the choices that women make in terms of work-life balance, and much more to do with women being held to “higher standards”.  What are these standards?  When I read this, I strongly suspect that “higher standards” really means “unconscious assumptions and expectations” (aka unconscious biases) about how women should behave and perform.  If that’s the case, then unconscious bias is a huge issue for companies that care about plain old fashioned fairness and meritocracy (much less gender diversity).

The recent publicity companies such as Google, BAE, Dow Chemicals, and Microsoft have received for training their workforce on unconscious bias shows that some companies are at least taking steps to try to solve the problem.  The real question is whether these training programs are effective.  To answer that, you have to measure the “before” and “after”.  Unfortunately doing that is hard.  There are tests to measure that a person has unconscious bias but whether they practice it or not (and whether their behavior has changed subsequent to getting diversity training) is not easy to test.  Short of installing cameras at work to analyze behavior (which, to be clear, we are NOT advocating), its one of the reasons we’re creating a safe place for women to share their honest thoughts about what’s really happening at the office.  After all, things that are unfair don’t tend to go unnoticed, and over time, any changes for the better — as we optimistically believe there will be — will show up as trends.

working women

Don’t Do The Naughty Thing

Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Professor Adam Grant recently authored an article about unconscious gender bias in the workplace.  The article describes numerous research studies showing that unconscious bias exists, but unlike the typical article on the subject they actually suggest that awareness of our biases isn’t enough.  Moreover, they point out that sometimes creating awareness actually cements our stereotypes, making them even more stubborn.  So what do we do about the biases we don’t even realize we have?

Professor Grant did something simple: he told his MBA students he never wanted to see such low female leadership numbers in his own classes again.  Sandberg and Grant write:

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

In other words, you have to actually to do something as simple as giving people an explicit order.  Its the parenting equivalent of it not being enough to tell a child that X behavior is naughty….you actually have to tell them explicitly, “Don’t do it!”

One of Fairygodboss‘ goals is to summarize for companies how their female talent views them.  Many women are happy with their companies and how they are treated, but for those corporate cultures that don’t do a good job of this, we will consider taking the next step: telling companies explicitly “You can and need to change.”

working women

Avoid Biased Hiring By Directly Comparing Men and Women

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program Gender Action Portal is a great website that aggregates academic research.  One of the publications I found there could help managers and HR teams avoid unconscious gender bias and stereotyping that would result in bad hiring decisions.  The take-away of this experiment: when you evaluate a candidate for a task/position, you’ll be more objective if you compare that person to another candidate.

The Harvard study involved two groups of people.  One group, (“Evaluators”) assessed another group, (“Subjects”) based on the following information: gender, past performance, and a description of a “gendered task” (e.g. a math task or a verbal task).  The assumption in this experiment was that Evaluators would hold common stereotypes around male and female abilities regarding math and verbal tasks, i.e. men are better at math tasks and women are better at verbal tasks.

When Evaluators assessed a Subject in isolation (i.e. without comparison or information on any other Subject), they weighed gender more heavily than past performance.  For a verbal job, they were more likely to assess a woman favorably compared to a man, even if that woman had low, prior scores on verbal tasks.  Similarly, Evaluators were more likely to positively view a man for a math job, even if he had low, prior math scores.  To be clear, the Subjects’ history of low scores were not dramatically low, i.e. they were slightly below-average results.  In other words, Evaluators were not considering anyone who looked like they were “failing” prior tasks.  The experiment was designed this way in order to be more realistic as the real world often requires making “close calls”.

Gender bias seemed to disappear when Evaluators were asked to assess two Subjects at a time.  If an Evaluator were given the same 3 pieces of information (i.e. gender, past performance and either a verbal/math task description) about two Subjects and asked to assess both, the overall assessment was predominantly based on past performance rather than gender.  Regardless of whether a Subject was a man or a woman, the Evaluator primarily made their assessment of a Subject based on prior score histories!  This pretty dramatic result implies that in addition to gender “blind” resume selection, it might be best to hire someone by comparing that person, head-on, with someone else.

working women

Hiring Better by Hiring Blindly?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

There was a time in my childhood when my answer would have been: “To become a professional classical musician.”  Specifically, I wanted to a join a world-class symphony orchestra as a flutist which is why I finished high school early to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  I didn’t know it then, but I would have a much easier time achieving this goal, than had I been born 20 years earlier.

According to this dated — but still very relevant — 1997 study by Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin and Princeton Professor Cecilia Rouse, gender balance within professional symphony orchestras went from less than 5% female to more than 25% female over the course of two decades.  How did this happen?  

The rules of the game changed.  Live auditions are the most important admissions to any musical group, whether its a summer music camp, conservatory program, or professional position.  And during the 1970’s and 1980’s, orchestras increasingly adopted “blind” auditions where evaluating committee did not see the candidate, but listened to them play symphonic excerpts from behind a screen.  This eliminated any possibility of bias from physical appearance, age, race, and gender.  

It seems obvious that one way to counter unconscious biases is to simply remove irrelevant information.  For example, are there really jobs where a hiring manager needs to know a candidates’ name at the resume stage?  After all, HR technology has evolved to the point where computers, not humans screen for a certain objective criteria and keywords indicative of experience.  Should the burden be on the hiring manager to justify why a name and other pieces of demographic information need to be part of the initial application dataset?

When I lived in London and was hiring for positions on my team based in Europe and Asia, I remember being surprised at the number of applicants who submitted resumes or CVs with attachments of their photographs and explicit statements of their race, age and marital status.  As an American, I found these disclosures uncomfortable to deal with because I had been raised in a more “politically correct” environment where I was taught that these things shouldn’t matter.  But clearly there are clearly different social, cultural norms at work around the world.  It would be interesting to hear from readers why these pieces of information might be justified.

Its probably unreasonable to try to replicate the blind orchestral audition throughout the full hiring process, especially when speaking and meeting with a candidate is very important to assess intangible but important things like presence, confidence, or interpersonal skills.  But in many cases, it seems extremely rational to actively remove the sources of our repeatedly demonstrated biases