The Assessment of a Wo/Man – What a difference gender makes

According to the just released White House Project: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, despite women’s education qualifications, acceptance of women as leaders by 89% of the population, and plenty of women in the pipeline, they continue to be underrepresented in the top ranks of the 10 industry sectors studied. They also are systematically underpaid. The basic question is:  Why?  The study includes possible explanations and recommendations.

To me one explanation is that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is performance.  Studies have repeatedly shown that the same work is rated higher when attributed to a man rather than a woman.  This applies in situations where there is a qualitative/subjective component of the assessment which includes most professional and managerial positions.

You might assume that men rate the performance of men more favorably than that of women and that women rate performance of women more favorably than that of men. The sad truth is, both men and women rate performance better when it’s believed to be performed by a man.  For example, the same essay is rated as better when presumably written by a man than by a woman regardless of the rater’s gender.   An unseen violinist is judged superior when introduced with a male name.  (Some orchestras have musicians audition behind a screen so they won’t be biased by gender!).

Other compelling proof of a somewhat different nature is the experiences of transsexuals, people who have gone through gender reassignment.  These individuals are like control subjects for themselves.  The genes, childhood experiences, work experiences, education and intellect are the same;  only  the external appearance (as well as the internal plumbing) changes from one gender to the other.  Logically, you’d expect performance ratings  to be the same for the male and female.  It’s not.  According to a study of 43 transsexuals cited in Time while FTMs (female to males) had no change or a small raise in pay,  MTFs (male to females) experienced a significant reduction in pay.  [Ben Barres, Prof. of Neurobiology at Stanford Medical School, gives an interesting description of his own experience changing FTM in a 2006 interview reported in the New York Times.] I sincerely doubt these changes in pay occurred consciously.  Instead, like the lowered performance ratings for work attributed to women in the research studies, these people suffer from unconscious bias against women. The difference in pay reflects the difference in perceived performance.  The challenge is bringing that bias into awareness where it can be corrected.

Why do you think the gender gaps in pay and position persist?

2 Responses

  1. Sandie January 17, 2011 at 5:01 pm |

    What is the study that shows essays are rated more highly when perceived to be written by a man? I heard of this study and have been looking for it, but only have been able to find mention of it here. Many thanks.

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