I have noticed something troubling in my career. Women are hired, and even promoted, but are expected to do more hands-on work than men. Male employees are viewed as high-level strategic thinkers and planners, while the women are seen as workhorses who must deliver on assignments themselves rather than delegating. The men more easily get junior employees hired under them to handle work, so they can function in more of a high-level planning capacity. The women are expected to stay in the trenches doing the work themselves. Does this sound familiar?
The tendency to unconsciously view women as in-the-trenches workhorses and men as high-level planners may be a case of implicit bias. That bias can lead women to feel undervalued. While their male counterparts are described as knowledgeable, and even brilliant, women are described as hard workers, productive, and reliable. Being recognized for the ability to get significant work done is good, but only if it is accompanied by a respect for the female employee’s industry knowledge, judgment, and overall intelligence. I often have wondered to myself, “What I can possibly do to make you see me as an intelligent person with a bank of knowledge to offer? Why is my value limited to my capacity to deliver on a mountain of work, while my male colleague—who has a job with fewer deliverables demanded and who manages a product that generates lower revenues—has a well-paid subordinate hired to help him?”
Evidence is emerging that men are recognized and respected more often for their intelligence, according to reporting in ScienceDaily. A recent New York University study reveals that men are more likely to be known for their intellectual capabilities: “Men are more likely than are women to be seen as ‘brilliant,’ finds a new study measuring global perceptions linked to gender. The work concludes that these stereotyped views are an instance of implicit bias, revealing automatic associations that people cannot, or at least do not, report holding when asked directly.”
I once asked a manager whether I could retain a part-time employee to help with the technical work on a Website I managed. The part-time employee had been handling the technical duties on the site for months, and I had just been hired as a writer and editor. I thought keeping him on in a limited capacity would be of value, allowing me to focus on what I do best—writing and editing. “I thought you were going to do everything,” my new boss said. “I think you’ll make yourself more valuable to the company if you learn those skills.”
I interpreted that as a veiled way of saying my job would be more secure if I learned the technical work myself, on top of the writing and editing that was my professional focus. Years later, the pattern continues. I notice that while I continue to strengthen my technical know-how—by necessity—males in a similar role are not expected to do the same. What it comes down to is: I have to offer up more deliverables than a male in my position to prove I am valuable. The man in my parallel position has greater inherent value. Before he has done anything at all for the company, he is assumed to be more valuable than I am. He is presumed to have his knowledge, leadership, and planning abilities to offer, while I only have my productivity to offer. I’m not viewed as having the potential to delegate to a junior employee while growing into a more senior role.
My guess is this observation has been made by many other women, some of whom may work for your company. What kinds of questions can you ask in employee surveys to gauge whether men and women are viewed as equally capable of brilliance and leadership.
Like all employee surveys, you will get the most honest, accurate responses if you can assure anonymity. However, be sure to ask the gender of the respondent. Questions I would ask include:
- Do you do most of the work your role is responsible for yourself, or do you have at least one employee to delegate to?
- What percentage of work do you do yourself and what percentage do you delegate?
- Which of the following words have you heard ascribed to you as compliments: “smart,” “brilliant,” “knowledgeable,” “great leader,” “great manager,” “productive,” “hard worker,” “gets a lot done.” Leave a blank space for the respondent to add “other” descriptions.
When you get the surveys back, be honest about the patterns you notice. Do you have a case of male employees getting more support so they can delegate and focus on high-level tasks than your female employees?
Great gains have been made by women in the workplace over the last 50 years, but implicit bias still exists. Becoming aware of those biases, and doing what you can to stop acting on them, will create a stronger, more profitable organization.