An Ideas-Based Online Magazine of the Global Network for Advanced Management

Is the Glass Ceiling Really Breaking?

Despite a strong push for gender equality, women are still lagging behind men in many important aspects. How do we break gender stereotypes and what are their impacts on gender equality in our workplace? Professor Christy Zhou Koval looks at the big picture.

In Hong Kong, despite similar levels of educational attainment and labor participation rates for men and women, there are still noticeable differences between the genders in terms of salaries and holding of leadership positions. According to the 2016 Hong Kong Census, the median monthly earnings of women (HK$11,600) were lower than men (HK$16,700) across all occupational groups except for clerical support. Furthermore, 66.8% of individuals in managerial positions are men whereas only 33.2% are women. This pattern of gender disparity is not unique in Hong Kong; many countries around the world share similar patterns in the workplace. As a result, leaders, educators and policymakers are sounding the same message: when it comes to gender equality, we still have a long way to go.

About Gender Stereotypes

What, though, causes such a persistent gender gap? Decades of research in the social sciences have pointed to gender stereotypes as an important factor contributing to such inequality. In many cultures, men and women are perceived as occupying distinct roles. Men are associated with “masculine” traits, such as being independent, ambitious and self-confident, whereas women are associated with “feminine” traits such as being kind, helpful and sympathetic towards the needs of others. These gender stereotypes originate from traditional roles where men were the breadwinners and women stayed at home to take care of the family. Although these traditional gender roles have become obsolete in many contemporary societies, as more women enter the workforce, the stereotypes are ingrained in our minds and still unconsciously shape our evaluation of men and women today.

In the workplace, gender stereotypes contribute to disadvantages for women at various stages of their careers. For example, they may be considered less competent and less suitable for jobs perceived as masculine in nature, and which typically bring higher pay and prestige (e.g. law, finance, and politics). Furthermore, women are sometimes judged less qualified to be leaders than men, despite evidence suggesting no quantifiable difference in leadership ability. Also, when women do break the “glass ceiling” and assume top leadership positions, they are often judged more harshly than their male counterparts.

In my own research, I have examined how gender stereotypes affect people’s judgements about creativity. In a knowledge-based economy where new ideas and innovation are at a premium, individuals deemed to possess genuinely innovative, cutting-edge ideas are likely to receive better rewards. Yet, my colleagues and I found that because of gender stereotypes, people believe men are better than women at divergent thinking, which is seen as an important form of creative thinking.  In one survey, we asked supervisors of 134 middle managers based in the US if their employees thought about things in innovative ways. We found that female managers were judged as less innovative in their thinking than their male colleagues.

In another study, we evaluated how people judge talks given by TED speakers. We aggregated data for the 100 most viewed talks on, which included topics ranging from technology, entertainment and design to business, science and global issues. We found that the percentage of viewers who described talks as creative was greater for talks given by male speakers than for those given by female speakers for five of the six topics. The exception was design. Importantly, a speaker’s gender predicted the percentage of creativity ratings even after we controlled for speaker’s competence.

One possible explanation of these findings is that there is a real gender difference when it comes to creativity. Men may actually be more creative than women. One way to eliminate this explanation is to control the actual performance of the person being evaluated. We did just that in a controlled experiment. We asked a group of Americans to evaluate the work of an architect by showing them identical pictures of three houses designed by that architect.  The participants were assigned to two groups. In one, they were told the architect was a man; in the other, that the architect was a woman. All other information was the same for both groups.

We found that this simple manipulation concerning gender significantly affected people’s evaluation of the architect’s work. Overall, participants rated the male architect as more creative, original, and exhibiting more out-of-the-box thinking than the female architect.  People evaluated the quality of the architect’s work differently based purely on their perception of gender, even though the actual work they were judging was identical. In other words, women are less likely than men to have their creative thinking recognized.

As creativity becomes one of the skills that employers most value, this research points to a unique reason why women may be passed over for top leadership positions. In particular, it may explain the dearth of women reaching the upper echelons in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which are strong forces driving the modern economy.

Ways to Reduce Gender Bias

What can businesses do to reduce gender bias in the workplace? Firstly, it is important to reflect honestly on our own attitudes towards gender.  In many cases, these attitudes are something of which we are not consciously aware. And simply telling people not to be sexist does very little to help reduce gender bias. Recognizing the limits of human cognition, many more companies are now using Implicit Bias Training to combat this issue.

Secondly, it is a good practice for organizations to quantify their gender bias. Thirdly, companies should design their workplace in such a way that the evaluation of employees is based on objective performance metrics as opposed to subjective evaluations. Combating gender stereotypes is no easy task, but companies can take concrete steps to reduce the gender gap.