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Research: How Bias Against Women Persists in Female-Dominated Workplaces

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New research examines gender bias within four industries with more female than male workers — law, higher education, faith-based nonprofits, and health care. Having balanced or even greater numbers of women in an organization is not, by itself, changing women’s experiences of bias. Bias is built into the system and continues to operate even when more women than men are present. Leaders can use these findings to create gender-equitable practices and environments which reduce bias. First, replace competition with cooperation. Second, measure success by goals, not by time spent in the office or online. Third, implement equitable reward structures, and provide remote and flexible work with autonomy. Finally, increase transparency in decision making.

It’s been thought that once industries achieve gender balance, bias will decrease and gender gaps will close. Sometimes called the “add women and stir” approach, people tend to think that having more women present is all that’s needed to promote change. But simply adding women into a workplace does not change the organizational structures and systems that benefit men more than women. Our new research (to be published in a forthcoming issue of Personnel Review) shows gender bias is still prevalent in gender-balanced and female-dominated industries.

Most gender bias research has focused on male-dominated industries like STEM or law enforcement, where women’s experiences of bias and discrimination may be more apparent. Our research is unique in that it examines gender bias in four industries with more female than male workers: law, higher education, faith-based nonprofits, and health care. In these four industries, women dominate. They make up 53.5% of the workforce in law, 55.3% in higher education, 63.8% in faith-based nonprofits, and 77.6% in health care. Using the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders along with open-ended questions, we compared perceptions and experiences of gender bias for 1,606 women leaders in these fields across 15 factors, ranging from subtle (such as lack of acknowledgement) to overt (such as workplace harassment).

Even though women are the majority in these industries, we found they still experience a multitude of biases. One example is constrained communication, in which women have to be mindful when expressing authority and downplay their accomplishments. They reported lack of acknowledgement for their contributions and being interrupted by men when speaking. And even when women were well represented, their workplace often still had a boys’ club mentality where decisions were made mostly by men. The participants were at times on a glass cliff, being held responsible for problems outside of their control. They often lacked mentors and sponsors. And lastly, some women found no other choice but to limit their aspirations due to personal obligations. In other words, their workplace was not supportive of combining work with family. Beyond these barriers, our results showed notable differences in other aspects of gender bias between the industries.

Law was the most challenging environment in our study. Women reported the highest levels of exclusion and workplace harassment in comparison to the other three industries. There is a long history of bias against women in law. The field’s competitive nature and emphasis on billable hours can make it difficult for individuals with caretaking responsibilities (disproportionately women) to keep up, thus perpetuating inequities.

By contrast women in higher education comparatively had the least challenging environment. These women reported facing constrained communication, unequal standards, salary inequality, and even workplace harassment. Yet they experienced more egalitarian organizational norms, were more willing to pursue promotions and other opportunities, had more sponsorship, and received more recognition for contributions compared to the other three industries. Higher education has a communal nature, social justice orientation, and commitment to shared governance and inclusivity, especially in decision making. Collective ownership and stakeholder input may lead to an environment that is comparatively better for women.

Female leaders in the faith-based nonprofit industry reported the lowest levels of queen bee syndrome, workplace harassment, and salary inequality in comparison to the other three samples. Of course, there are some possible explanations for these results. First, the small number of female leaders in faith-based nonprofits may mute queen bee behaviors. Second, the faith-based nature of these organizations may have socialized members to be kinder and women to accept their lower status, which could limit harassment. Last, reports of salary inequality may have been subdued by the industry’s generally low salary expectations and an unusual salary structure, in which couples are sometimes hired as a unit.

Our survey participants who worked in health care reported the second highest levels of unequal standards, just behind law. Research in health care and other industries has found that supposedly meritocratic reward systems have been shown to increase gender inequalities in performance evaluations, work allocation, and rewards — particularly in specialized job roles. Additionally, social expectations for women to be nurturing place pressure on women physicians to spend more time with patients and provide more emotional support than is expected of male counterparts.

Clearly, having balanced or even greater numbers of women in an organization is not, by itself, changing women’s experiences of bias. Bias is built into the system and continues to operate even when more women than men are present. But the good news is that leaders can use these findings to create gender-equitable practices and environments which reduce bias.

Replace competition with cooperation.

Eight studies with 147,000 people show that dominant, competitive leadership has the unintended consequence of zero-sum thinking — the belief that progress can be made only at the expense of others — among subordinates. Such environments disincentivize workers from helping or supporting their colleagues.

Top leaders should model cooperation and incentivize collaboration and teamwork. For instance, pharmaceutical company Pfizer had rapid execution and success with its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine through a cooperative environment in which “everybody [was] pulling in the same direction with the same goal.” They asserted that the experience was “like magic.”

Measure success by goals, not by time spent.

Too often presenteeism functions as a measure of employee performance and dedication. As distributed workforces and remote work have taken hold, measuring performance by time in the office or spent online is not relevant. But giving people freedom and responsibility to choose when they work can make managers anxious.

One way to address this is to specify more and micromanage less. Specify the goals and how success is measured but then allow employees to creatively and freely pursue their objectives.

Implement equitable reward structures.

While “meritocratic” reward systems like pay-for-performance and billable hours may seem equitable, they paradoxically increase gender inequality. One study found that managers in explicit meritocracies were less likely to award pay fairly and more apt to act on biases, such as by giving women smaller bonuses.

It’s better to implement cooperative reward structures which recognize all types of contributions toward organizational goals. One way to do this is to measure business units not only on their own performance but also that of peer units, thus encouraging employees to actively help their colleagues.

Provide remote and flexible work with autonomy.

While many companies implemented remote work before 2020, the pandemic has proven the success of remote and flexible work in many more industries. Not only have employee morale and work-life balance improved with less time on the road and more time for personal pursuits and family obligations, but even resistant-to-change industries like banking and finance continue to thrive with a remote workforce. In medicine, telehealth can improve advancement opportunities and decrease burnout for women. Some organizations, like Salesforce and Arena Pharmaceuticals, have moved to full-time remote work. In other industries like higher education, a hybrid workforce may be best.

While remote work isn’t an option for all jobs, flexibility can still be given where possible. In retail, for example, workers can be permitted to have flexible start and end times and to swap or vary their shifts. To boost motivation and performance, maximize employee autonomy to decide where and when their work gets done. Companies which refuse to offer autonomy, flexibility, or remote work when possible are risking lower employee morale and increased turnover.

Increase transparency in decision making.

When people feel included, they will speak up and go the extra mile, which boosts organizational performance. Transparent decision making has been linked to increased employee trust, happiness, and engagement, and it fosters innovative thinking. Like higher education’s shared governance model, full discussion and decisions should occur when stakeholders are present, as opposed to taking place in informal conversations. Leaders should make sure that everyone has a voice in meetings and that all perspectives are heard and considered.

Gender equity isn’t just about representation. We need to terminate gender bias at its root by fixing our organizations to make them inclusive, flexible, supportive, and equitable to women.

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Hiring a Remote Worker? It Takes More Than an Internet Connection

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Federal data continues to show near-record numbers of job openings across the country. As of April 2022, 33.4% of business owners were still having trouble hiring paid employees, according to the most recent Small Business Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

If your business has an open seat for a work-from-home job — or one that could be — a remote worker may help fill it. But before that can happen, you’ll need to handle more than just basic barriers, like equipment or cybersecurity. Here’s what you need to know to hire a remote employee.

1. Figure out the logistics

If you hire an employee in a new state from wherever your small business currently operates, you’ll be subject to that state’s employment laws and payroll taxes. You’ll also need workers’ compensation insurance in each state where you have employees.

The more far-flung your team gets, the more likely you may need to hire a human resources staffer, consultant or vendor — eating into your budget for new roles.

“If you want to keep things simple, stay within your state,” says Megan Dilley, communications director at Distribute, a consulting firm that specializes in remote work.

You can also turn to a freelancer-for-hire service like Fiverr or Upwork to simplify the hiring process.

Tessa Gomes, a Hawaii-based wedding planner, hired a team of five contractors through Upwork earlier this year.

“It just makes so much more sense than me trying to do it individually,” Gomes says. “It’s like [my] pool of human resources just grew tenfold.”

2. Define your company and the role

When writing your job description, make sure it includes details about your remote-work environment.

“The definitions [of ‘remote’] are all pretty fuzzy,” Dilley says. “So as much as you can, be very clear and transparent from the get-go.”

For example, if you expect employees to clock in at 9 a.m. Eastern time each day, to come to the office twice a week or to travel for a quarterly meeting, say so on the job listing.

Polish up your company website and social media profiles as well. Consider adding some information about your employees and your work environment.

Each company should make sure its online presence explains “who they are, their brand, what their culture is like, how they treat their people, DEI,” says Victoria Neal, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

You can list job postings on LinkedIn and other job board websites, but Neal says to try sharing job postings through social media or email among people who already follow your work.

“A lot of employers are really utilizing their current user bases” to find new hires, she says.

3. Redesign your interview process

Because interviewers may no longer see candidates in person, you’ll need to educate them about new things.

“Virtual recruiting and virtual interviewing can eliminate some biases,” says Allan Platt, CEO of business consulting firm Clareo. But he adds that they can introduce a whole new set of assumptions, for instance around candidates’ internet connection and home office setup.

To help with this, Platt says his company’s interviews are highly structured and candidates are evaluated on consistent matrices.

“The way that we structure and organize our interviews when we’re doing remote interviews is really important,” Platt says. “Candidates are evaluating us as much as we’re evaluating them. They’re looking for every clue they can get.”

You may also want to tweak your interview structure. For instance, remote workers need to be excellent communicators who can meet deadlines. Asking behavioral interview questions and assigning sample work can help you find candidates who demonstrate those skills.

4. Prepare for day one

Before your new hire joins the team, make sure your workplace operates well asynchronously. Online tools for remote work like Slack can help employees help each other, so a new hire’s manager doesn’t have to field every question — especially if their working hours don’t line up.

On day one, you can help your new employees feel welcome and fully prepared by planning an onboarding program. If you don’t already have documentation for common processes, try to create it before your new hire starts.

Schedule frequent meetings with your new employee at the beginning. As those meetings taper off, Dilley encourages over-communication as the norm.

Spend some time thinking about your own mindset, too. If you’re used to having constant contact with a new employee — especially during their first few weeks — prepare to give up some control.

With remote work, “trust is assumed and not earned,” Dilley says, “which is a bit of a difference in what people used to talk about.”

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To Make Better Hires, Learn What Predicts Success

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Hiring the best talent remains a persistent struggle for many companies. That’s because they are doing it wrong — often looking at the labor pool for carbon copies of people who are already successful in their roles. But that is being too demanding, particularly during a tight labor market. Instead, employers should borrow an approach from baseball, in which top teams track the performance of new hires and then search for the one or two skills or experiences that predicted their future success. For digital journalists, for instance, it might be the social engagement with published articles. To do this, companies must better connect hiring with performance management.

The current talent struggles of U.S. companies are hardly a new trend. A PwC survey dating 15 years back cited that 93% of CEOs recognized the need to change their strategy for attracting and retaining talent. If organizations have been trying to improve their hiring outcomes for so long, then why are so many still struggling? The short answer is that companies often spend too little time improving how they define and track performance.

A Lasting Problem

Recently, a number of executives have asked us if they still need to worry about recruiting as much given the signs of the economy softening. It’s true that economists expect the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in an attempt to curb inflation, which is expected to increase unemployment. However, as Covid-19 has taught us, not every downturn is the same, and there are strong indications that hiring will continue to be a large obstacle for many companies.

In 2017 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a press release, stating that the number of unfilled jobs had reached 6.2 million, a historical high. That record was then surpassed in 2018 and then again in 2019 when the number of unfilled jobs reached 7.5 million. That number is now at 10.7 million, 43% higher than the prior record. As a result, there are currently two job openings for every person who is unemployed.

It seems unlikely that such a vast imbalance in the labor market will be resolved by even a recession. This is especially true for certain pockets of the economy that have a backlog of open roles due to Covid-19, and also for parts of the labor force, such as college graduates and other highly skilled professions, that have historically experienced relatively low unemployment even during economic downturns.

Companies have no choice — they must learn to hire better. So, how?

Emulate Moneyball, Not Frankenstein

In a knowledge-based economy individuals can contribute to organizations in an increasing number of ways. Envision a tech company with three successful product managers; Kate, John, and Aditi. Kate’s key to success is her data-driven approach to understanding customer needs, while John’s strength is an intuitive approach to product design and Aditi’s is her ability to empower her teams. As long as all three are successful, their employer is happy and gives them the freedom to do their work as they please.

The problem arises when their employer wants to hire a fourth product manager. Recognizing that all three product managers bring valuable skills to the organization, the tech firm writes the Kate+John+Aditi job description. This results in a Frankenstein talent strategy, focused on candidates who check the box on all dimensions as opposed to those with one clear superpower.

Compare this to the Moneyball approach to recruiting. While baseball players could contribute to the team in a number of ways, Billy Beane questioned the age-old quest for players who contributed to all of them. Instead Beane sought a portfolio of players, each making unique contributions. In other words, he reduced the number of criteria he expected his recruits to excel at. He did this by giving a lot of thought to what constituted success in each role. Note that he did not go with the broad definition of success, such as “helping us win the game in a variety of ways,” but instead focused on how each player could contribute to the team in a narrower dimension, such as how good their on-base percentage was. He then applied a razor-sharp focus to finding players who were net-positive contributors by outperforming on one or two criteria, even if it meant lacking in other dimensions.

A Case Study from Graduate School Admissions

We recently collaborated with a large U.S. university to reengineer its MBA admissions process. There was a long-standing belief in this school that the best predictor of a “good student” was the quantitative component of the GMAT. It’s a business school, after all, with rigorous requirements in courses like statistics, economics, and finance. Indeed, some faculty believed everything in the admissions process but quant GMAT was a waste of time. But we followed Billy Beane’s example and, instead of relying on this conventional wisdom, turned to historical data.

The first challenge was to articulate how the school defined performance. For example, should we define good performance as a student with stellar academic achievement or a good career outcome? Should we use starting salary as a proxy for a good career outcome or try to collect their compensation after a few years? How about students that go into meaningful jobs in sectors that don’t pay as well? Discussing these questions made us realize that desirable performance is multi-dimensional, with some dimensions easier to measure than others. We ended up using multiple proxies for even seemingly simple dimensions like academic performance.

In the end our team’s analysis found that quantitative GMAT scores are indeed a reliable predictor of applicants’ academic performance, but it also showed that verbal GMAT scores are as good if not better! Putting more weight on verbal tests scores was a simple shift in the admissions process, but one that lead to admitting a somewhat different student body. And doing things differently provides a competitive advantage relative to schools blindly following conventional wisdom.

How to Get There

Some business leaders we’ve spoken to recognize the need for a more analytical approach to hiring but are intimidated by how to get there. Defining and tracking performance doesn’t need to be a complicated, multi-year project where you start producing troves of new performance data. You often have the data you need; it just requires some hard thinking around how to utilize it.

Start by defining the outcomes you want to see for your team or organization. Then work creatively to measure those results and how to attribute those outcomes to the work of various individuals. The initial reaction from many executives, particularly in white collar industries, is that attributing such results to any single individual will be nearly impossible in their profession. However, more often than not we’ve been able to find ways to do this. A digital news site we worked with, for example, argued that a good news piece could come in many shapes and forms and therefore only relied on the instincts of their senior team to identify and try to recruit up-and-coming talent. We collaboratively came up with a few hypotheses on how to better identify future stars, and after testing these were able to show that the number of social media comments on previously published articles was a strong predictor of future success.

Where output data on desirable organizational results is truly not possible to define, input data on employee activities can be useful. A chair manufacturer we worked with was giving up revenues as it could not hire enough people to fulfill their orders. They also struggled with high employee attrition and high absence rates. Using their internal data, we were able to show that female workers — a heavily underrepresented group in the factory — had the least absences and were the most loyal workers. This helped them realize the root of their problem was that their recruitment process overlooked women and other qualified candidates, while favoring less productive men.

Yes, implementing the steps above will require your organization to set aside time to tackle complex topics that don’t have obvious answers. For example, should you define financial success for your company as revenue growth, margin growth or an increase in your share price? But in our experience these are conversations you should be having anyway. Because it’s work, not enough organizations do it. As in Moneyball, if you want significantly different results, you have to apply a significantly different approach to looking for talent. This seems obvious but it is in fact rare. To find better talent, begin at the end.

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Designing Hospitals that Promote Staff Wellbeing

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Even before Covid-19, rates of behavioral health illness were on the rise. In the third year of the pandemic, mental health has accelerated into a crisis, with health care workers in particular facing high levels of stress and burnout. Although mask mandates have been lifted and restrictions have been eased in many areas, caregivers are still in the throes of treating infected patients, while also coping with the fallout of the past two years. This convergence of factors has led to an uptick in mental health issues among health care workers, many of whom report experiencing record-high rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population.

Previously, designing clinical spaces for well-being was focused primarily on the patient. Now, taking care of patients is table stakes; caring for the people who serve them is crucial to creating and maintaining a high-performing hospital system.

Designing buildings for the well-being of health care staff is not just necessary to curb the mental health crisis among the profession. It’s also critical to buttress the financial fallout that ensues with high turnover, preventing additional strain on a system already taxed from financial losses due to differed treatment during the pandemic.

During Covid, hospitals have seen increased rates of turnover among employees, which is both costly to morale and the bottom line. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, in 2020, the turnover rate for registered nurses increased 2.8 percentage points to 18.7% industry-wide. Each percentage point change translates to approximately $270,000 lost or saved per hospital.

These numbers have prompted hospitals to rethink their approach to the physical environment and incorporate research-based design strategies that improve well-being for both patients and the staff guiding their recovery. Below, we outline three lessons for designing hospitals and clinics based on current projects NBBJ is working on with Massachusetts General Hospital, Atrium Health, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Montage Health.

Lesson 1: Employee mental health can be part of a building’s identity.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston is currently building a 482-bed expansion called Cambridge Street that focuses on staff and patient satisfaction, operational efficiency, and environmental stewardship. Several years ago, NBBJ also oversaw the creation of MGH’s 150-bed Lunder Building. Both facilities offer key insights into how seemingly simple design interventions can have a significant impact on the mental well-being of staff members.

It’s important to note that what we recommend are not amenities, even if some may call them that. Rather than focusing on the “nice to have” perks found in tech company headquarters, many of the spaces in MGH’s facility are “must haves” given the fact lives are on the line: stairwells flooded with light, deliberately quiet patient floors, and safer working conditions, for example.

The Lunder building offers plentiful access to daylight through a glass-encased stairwell used only by staff, who have adopted the corridor as a de facto meeting space (nicknamed the “stair conference room”). Staff also use this stairwell as a place to “be alone together” and report that they find comfort watching employees traverse the stairwell while they use the space to think and decompress.

The building further expands staff’s exposure to daylight — which impacts work-related stress and job satisfaction and is found to affect clinician burnout — through corridors that allow staff to access rooms from an exterior wall. Since less noise can reduce stress among caregivers and also help patients recover from illness, the Lunder building uses a variety of sound-absorbing materials and techniques to make the patient floors 35% quieter than typical health care buildings. Other features designed to minimize noise include sliding doors, distributing work zones for clinical staff across the floor rather than in a single location, and elevators and visitor waiting areas located away from patient rooms.

Finally, staff safety is perhaps the most critical “amenity” of all. For example, overexertion — in the form of repetitive routine physical tasks such as bending, stretching, and standing — account for 45.6% of all injuries occurring to nurses, according to a 2018 article published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These injuries can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains and strains that accounted for 8,730 days away from work among nurses in the private industry in 2016. Features such as motorized overhead patient ceiling lifts or full-height glass doors that provide greater situational awareness can help reduce injuries.

Designing buildings in this fashion makes a difference. For example, post-occupancy data from new inpatient units and staff work areas NBBJ designed for Atrium Health indicates that vast majority of employees feel safer and more at ease in the workplace. In the same post-occupancy evaluation, employees mentioned “the collaborative nature of the research floor,” “increased interaction with colleagues,” and “improved team collaboration” as positive aspects of the new building, further illustrating that opportunities for collaboration and interaction improve employee satisfaction.

Lesson 2: Design features can reduce stress in core working spaces.

Many hospitals are embracing support spaces that enable people to choose how they spend their precious break times. These spaces, both “offstage” (where staff can gather or be alone) and “onstage” (where caregivers see patients), allow staff to spend less time navigating a building and more time recharging.

Loma Linda University Medical Center’s expansion in Southern California boasts an open-core design. It features wide corridors, access to daylight, and the distribution of patient and supply rooms along the wings, which allows staff to connect better with each other and patients. In open-core hospitals, major support functions such as staff lockers, break rooms, and conference rooms are in a centralized hub that connects to patient wings along the exterior. This layout reduces the need for staff to travel between patient and supply rooms, the type of inefficient and repetitive physical tasks that can lead to burnout.

In addition to open-core designs, collaborative clinician rooms — such as the new examination rooms at MGH’s Cambridge Street project, which are sized to allow for multidisciplinary consults — reflect the evolving nature of medicine. Collaborative clinician spaces decrease the load on caregivers and their teams while also providing patients with a new, more effective way to navigate their medical journey.

In the future, these recharging spaces could take different forms, which would acknowledge that everyone refuels in a different way. For instance, because the availability of private spaces has been shown to reduce caregiver stress some hospitals are exploring restorative zones with nap areas for their staff that would be located close to the patient unit for ease of use.

Lesson 3: Good design is ultimately good for business.

Health systems such as Montage Health on the Monterey Peninsula are taking advantage of their less-densely-populated location by incorporating nature into the design of their buildings. For example, Montage’s Ohana Center’s garden-like environment and private patios for staff are designed to lower levels of arousal fatigue — the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without breaks. Arousal fatigue is one of the key factors contributing to burnout among behavioral health caregivers, who have an annual turnover rate of 40%.

Other organizations are exploring solutions such as satellite food lockers, mobile ordering apps, and meal programs that offer discounts for nutritious food options. These types of design interventions are investments in staff longevity; they help to reduce stress and encourage positive lifestyle choices, ultimately supporting the mental and physical well-being of the people charged with helping others recuperate.

Behavioral health challenges existed before the pandemic and will persist after it’s over. Consequently, as health care systems navigate the lingering impacts of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that they shift towards a more caregiver-centric mindset. Only by creating spaces and implementing solutions that promote staff well-being and patient healing at the same time can they effectively retain and recruit staff and reduce the financial impact of burnout and turnover. Designing buildings to enhance employees’ well-being will help keep them satisfied and productive.

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