UCL School of Management

Tom Taiyi Yan | 闫太一 | 7 March 2022

Breaking the Bias

In 2022, the importance of gender equality is more evident than ever, and efforts towards gender parity are being made across the world. On the policy level, the UK government created dedicated government agencies to implement crucial policies such as funding childcare, demanding firm disclosure of diversity data, and publicising gender research. In the workplace, companies such as Google’s parent company Alphabet are dedicating tens of millions of dollars to gender equality initiatives such as creating more equitable hiring practices, and more inclusive policies at work.  

However, the challenge facing gender parity is that with every effort towards progress, there is also a countervailing force aiming to reinforce the existing system of gender bias. For instance, research showing the idea that meritocracy or evaluation based on performance instead of impression could solve gender bias proved to be naïve—when companies promote a meritocratic culture, managers enacted greater gender bias when distributing bonuses and promotions because they believe they are already “off the hook” (i.e. paradox of meritocracy). Other commonly endorsed practices such as encouraging women to expand their professional networks have received similar findings—they work sometimes, but even when they do work, they tend to invite backlashes in ways that undermine gender parity. Given these challenges, what are some promising avenues of action to break the bias? In my opinion, there are two areas of research that are particularly promising.

Gender-specific role modelling

A role model is an old topic in gender discourse—by showing women who are successful, we can inspire new generations of women. However, this idea has also received mixed support. For instance, when shown role models of successful women such as female doctors or CEOs, sometimes female participants report a feeling of unattainability or non-self-relevance, therefore they are less confident and willing to pursue similar paths. My research suggests there are two issues that need to be considered when it comes to effective role modelling 1) is the role model routinely accessible, visible and relevant? 2) is the role model demonstrating learnable behaviours crucial to success?

First, it is not enough to just show people that it is possible for women to succeed, we need to provide access to role models that women can observe regularly. In this sense, my research suggests instead of a distant role model such as a female CEO of a large corporation, women may benefit more from a female direct supervisor whose actions are more relevant and observable on a daily basis. Second, effective role modelling is more than to inspire confidence, but also involves demonstration of how to act in a specific situation. For instance, it is important to not only expose observers to female role models, say a female leader in a company, but also see how exactly she leads (research shows female leadership can look very different than male leadership).

Coalition and allyship

Another area I personally find promising is gender progress by coalition and allyship. In history, most equality progress is the result of the disadvantaged social group forming a coalition with some members of the dominant group. In this case, men joining women to push for gender parity progress. This is important because members of the advantaged group bring to the coalition an acknowledgement of privilege, as well as their access to resources and influence. Together, the coalition can achieve both legitimacy (e.g. our concern is real) and weight (e.g. our movement is powerful).

However, while this is a promising area of action, it is not without challenge. Men, even when they believe in gender parity, often hesitate to speak up about these issues. Research shows it’s because they believe they lack the “standing” (e.g. it is not my place) to endorse ideas that do not affect them. For instance, a man may believe that women deserve longer maternal leave at work, but refrain from explicitly endorsing this advocacy because he believes the fact that he is a man precludes him from speaking on matters that do not affect him. Another stream of research has indicated that men fear that successful gender parity initiatives are going to directly harm their income and standing within organisations, while evidence suggests gender equality will most likely increase economic and social welfare for everyone.

Ongoing research is beginning to unpack the social process of forming a mixed-gender coalition and the question about how to best gain allyship remains to be answered. But one thing is for sure, working together is more impactful than any group working alone.

About the author
Tom Taiyi 
 Yan | 闫太 is an Assistant Professor in the Organisations and Innovation Group at The School of Management. His research interests include 1) interpersonal and inter-team competition; 2) brokerage or structural hole; 3) gender disparities and related intervention; 4) change-oriented construct such as voice behaviour and creativity.

Last updated Tuesday, 8 March 2022