How Leaders Conquer Gender Bias


How Leaders Conquer Gender Bias.

Sangita Kasturi is the CEO of Action Inclusion, which offers diversity and inclusion strategies, and workshops for organizations in all industries. Leveraging more than 15 years of global experience, Action Inclusion facilitates the dialog and drives the insights that help organizations transform the way they hire, retain and promote women. 

Christopher P. Skroupa: How can management ensure effective recruitment of female talent?

Sangita Kasturi: It is important to differentiate between issues of recruiting, retention and advancement. For example, fields like insurance, education and healthcare have a solid representation of women at entry- to mid-levels, but not at the top. For them and others with a high number of women at lower levels, recruitment is not the issue, it is recognition, development and advancement. Many don’t realize that even female-dominated fields like non-profits have less than 15% of women in the top seats. We continue to associate men with leadership more than we do women. I always say, when it comes to women, it is not about their capability, rather our inability to see it.

But recruitment is an issue in other fields, including STEM fields, because we tend to correlate engineering and science with men. Even when women apply for these positions, they may be overlooked due to “inattentional blindness,” which is the tendency to pass over things we don’t expect to see. Even venture capitalists fund women at significantly lower levels.

Stanford University ran an experiment to hire a lab manager. When they circulated a resumé as “Jennifer,” the candidate was perceived as unqualified. When the name on her resumé was changed to “John,” the candidate was deemed qualified and offered the job. The few who were willing to hire Jennifer offered, on average, $4,000 less than they offered John.

The good news is there is a lot we can do about this, such as coaching HR on structured candidate debriefing practices to uncover implicit bias. Gender- and race-blind practices such as assigning numbers, rather than names, to incoming resumes, also makes a difference.


Skroupa: What challenges does management typically face when it comes to retaining women on a leadership path within the company? How can they work to address those obstacles?

Kasturi: Gender challenges can be conventional or non-conventional. Conventional issues include lack of flex time and maternity leave, which have an impact on women due to the disproportional burden they bear for child- and homecare. Another is our assumption that women have an abundance of soft skills like collaboration and emotional sensitivity. Such assumptions work for women who have an abundance of these characteristics, but they don’t work for women whose key strengths lie elsewhere—they may be stars in courageous decision making, strategic analysis or risk taking, for example. When women violate gender normative behavior, we tend to penalize them for “acting like a man” or we become uncomfortable with them in other ways. Our failure to reward all types of positive characteristics in women could contribute to the wage gap.

Recognizing and rewarding women who are simply better at the “hard” stuff falls into the bucket of “unconventional” challenges we face today. In a related example, Columbia University ran an experiment where the same strategic analysis was perceived equally competent coming from a man or a woman, but the man was perceived as more likeable even though no information beyond the analysis was given. Even today, the conventional coaching is for women to soften up and be more feminine in order to succeed at work. I suggest we start coaching management to understand that women are human, therefore they have a broad range of human traits that may not align with gender expectations.

The solutions is to recognize a full range of human characteristics in everyone and refrain from penalizing women and men who violate gender norms. Companies can take a close look at high potential programs that may have an equal intake of women and men, but tend to favor men with subsequent promotions or pay increases. Paternity leave can help as it offers a real choice about who stays home. Leader toolkits to amplify women’s voices, broadening our understanding of bias, talent reviews that dig into stereotypes, and scrubbing communications for gendered language and images can also help.


Skroupa: What strategies might a company take to mitigate unconscious bias and the wage gap?

Kasturi: Women have outpaced men in college graduation for two decades. Research shows no gender difference in ambition or the willingness to work. Yet women are underrepresented in most industries, and on average paid 20%-30% less than men. Contrary to myth, women do negotiate, but we are uncomfortable when they do because gender norms dictate that women don’t ask, they give. This applies even at the highest echelons of leadership, speaking of which, the latest count on Fortune 500 female CEOs is under 5%.

It is clear that implicit bias causes us to assess people differently based on gender. The Stanford and Columbia experiments are examples of this. Unconscious bias and the wage gap are linked because we pay for what we value and we continue to undervalue women economically. Women who do demand to be valued are perceived negatively, or asked to tone down the way they ask so that they are consistent with gender norms.

We need to actively expand our understanding of gender so qualities like ambition, drive and leadership are recognized as implicitly female. We need to stop penalizing women who are not gender-compliant. Companies can accomplish this in many ways, including training leaders on issues of bias and reviewing policies and practices that inadvertently favor one gender. Women’s wages can be improved if we stopped asking for salary history before extending an offer, because we already know that people tend to pay less when the candidate is female—pay should not be based on the economic value others placed on her in the past.

Finally, because female-male are a two sides of a coin, we must also broaden our expectations of men and recognize them as caregivers, not just breadwinners. Paternity leave is central to women’s advancement. If men were expected to play a primary role in childcare, it could free women to have the privilege of career focus that men have had for decades. When we have equality in the home, we will have equality in the boardroom. And that begins with changing our perceptions about women and men.

Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.