iStock_000006954519XSmallBy Melanie Axman

Early last spring, a study was designed by several faculty members at the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO) at Simmons College in Boston. Through the study, CGO’s scholars set out to delve into the leadership gap that persists despite ongoing efforts throughout corporate America to affect positive change in the workplace.

Critical obstacles deemed to widen this gap are “second generation gender bias,” a term that defines more subtle gender dynamics, deeply embedded in an organization’s culture and work norms. Most surprising was the study’s finding that senior male bosses, when involved in organizational change efforts regarding these biases, were perceived as the most effective change agents for women seeking leadership roles.

To collect the data, a survey (sponsored by HP) was conducted to further understand the role of second generation gender bias in the workplace. Approximately 300 women attending the 2010 Women’s Leadership Conference were asked to answer questions in relation to these dynamics within their organizations.

In discussing whether or not the sampling was representative of the female workforce as a whole, Dr. Spela Trefalt, co-author of the study says, “These women were already leaders or looking to become leaders. The degree to which women are recognizing these issues would certainly be higher when they are looking to become leaders, because that is when these issues start to bother them. Virtually every single woman [surveyed] reported having encountered these issues. As women start vying for leadership positions at work, second generation gender biases start affecting their paths.”

What is Second Generation Gender Bias?

Second generation gender bias suggests that organizational change typically focuses on overt aspects of gender bias, ignoring the deeply embedded ideas supported by culture, norms and work practices that shape formal systems of hiring, promotion and compensation. Trefalt explains, “I want to emphasize that the whole research on second generation gender bias issues does not suggest that these actions are deliberate, they are dynamics that exist that we all perpetuate. On the surface, these actions are not neutral, but they overwhelmingly affecting women. However, not only women are affected. Overall, [second generation gender bias] makes it difficult for people to succeed in organizations, if they do not fit the typical profile of the standard worker. Still, the majority of care giving responsibilities fall on women, and thus this is the demographic that is most challenged with it.”

According to the study, second generation gender issues “cover those work cultures and practices that appear neutral [on the surface], but can result in differential experiences for and treatment of diverse groups of women and men.” While seemingly innocuous, these cultural assumptions support the status quo of men as leaders, and “reflect masculine values and the life situations of men who have dominated in the public domain of work.” In referring to ‘invisible work,’ or work that often disappears (such as team building, anticipating problems before they occur and integrating the work of others) Trefalt says, “Invisible work does not reflect female-specific attributes, but rather ‘work’ that is crucial to coordinating activities, helping people to solve problems, and building effective teams. It is important to separate it from femininity. Men can do this work too, and if they are doing it well, they can be successful. The motive of this work is effectiveness, not that fact that it comes naturally to a woman. It needs to be called ‘work.”

Making Time

Also interestingly reflected in the study was how representation on ‘diversity’ committees and the like, “means extra hours and time spent away from more critical activities that ‘count.’ However, to decline such work can violate expectations of the way women are supposed to behave.”

After querying the results of the survey, and analyzing the data, the scholars from CGO realized that women perceived themselves more successful when they engaged a male boss in their efforts to succeed. The study also suggests that the best way to counteract these biases is for men and women to deepen their understanding of how they exist, as well as the impact they have.

In addition, the study revealed that male bosses and mentors must be intentional in investing time and energy in sponsoring high-potential women in their organizations. Equally, women need to be strategic about seeking support from both sponsors and mentors. According to the study, “[Women] need influential sponsors who give visibility to their accomplishments and advocate for them as organizational leaders.” Trefalt says, “I think it’s because male bosses have formal authority within an organization, and are not affected by gender issues themselves, which puts them in the best position to help. To help women advance in the workplace, we need to engage senior male managers, as they certainly have the power to make significant progress.”

Both the study and Trefalt encourage organizations to find specific solutions to this challenge that fit the value, culture and context of the respective organization. Rather than creating programs that are blanketed across a wide range of companies and industries, companies should seek to identify these biases within their own setting, and creating counteractive measures to aid in closing the leadership gap.