Gender bias: the psychology behind the gender pay gap

21 Jul 2017

"It's indisputable that there's a real pay gap. People can argue about how big, but that's almost beside the point. The point is that every woman, every girl, deserves to get paid what they're worth." — Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook.

Why the gender bias?

A recent study published by The Office for National Statistics claims that there are many factors contributing to the persisting salary discrepancies between men and women, including things like part-time work, vocational choices and child-care.  However, digging a little deeper into our societal psyche might reveal some explanations for the self-fulfilling imbalance. For example, being exposed to culturally embedded stereotypes and/or clear gender roles early in life can psychologically groom women and men for different types of jobs or expectations.  This is readily apparent in the results of ‘Implicit Association Tests’ – where even self-proclaimed feminists will more easily associate synonyms of “office” and “career” to pictures of men (compared to pictures of women).  You can try the test for yourself on Harvard’s website here.  Although the results are consistent, in our society at least, they do not make us all inherently sexist – but they do illustrate the extent to which we have been exposed to these associations in our life.  And it’s very difficult to detach our behaviour and, in many cases, our identity from information which has been made so implicit by our mind.

The bad news is that characteristics generally associated with masculinity – such as assertiveness, independence, power and self-reliance – hone men for higher paid jobs in higher paid sectors, according to a report published by Glassdoor. Schneider et al. (2010) explored this idea with regard to female politicians, concluding that our collective, normative understanding of “feminine” (e.g. nurturing, warm) is incongruent with these success characteristics (e.g. assertive, powerful). Women seem to face a choice of being seen as likeable or as competent, but not as both. This trade-off could be a big influencing factor.

This poses a further metaphorical hurdle for women in the form of a very ‘male’-orientated negotiation culture, where the loudest and brashest claims can drown out others with equal or superior merit.  Interestingly, however, recent research has suggested that if a woman is firm, demanding and assertive on behalf of others she appears not to face the biased backlash so much.  The job, organisation or sector you are operating in can also mediate some of the effects we have described so far. For example, while female politicians find it very difficult to be perceived in the same terms as their male counterparts, female lawyers don’t face this ‘competence versus likeability’ dichotomy to such an extent.  A huge amount of this comes down to the culture of a collective.

Inclusive leadership

Many of our clients are asking for help in creating a more inclusive leadership culture. They are keen to understand what leaders need to do in order to create an environment in which individuals can feel unique and different, whilst still belonging to a team with shared goals and values, and engaging with the ambitions of their organisation.  

We have also been involved in developing sponsorship and diversity within a number of large Professional Services firms, as well as running global programmes on the subject of women’s career management. 

To find out more about our research or how we can help you, contact us now…

020 7432 8460

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