People Really Don’t Want To Admit Their Bias Against Women In Power, This Study Shows

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It might seem like society is more accepting of women in leadership roles these days, but it turns out discrimination against women in power is much higher than people are letting on, according to new research published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles. According to a news release, the researchers found people don’t answer survey questions honestly about their attitudes toward women in leadership roles because they don’t want to violate social norms. But when given the chance to truly share their thoughts confidentially about having women in powerful positions, the researchers say, the results show people are much more likely to discriminate against women.

Researchers found that that people are not always honest about their opinions about “socially sensitive” questions, preferring to give the socially acceptable response instead, according to the news release. Of the 1,529 participants, 28 percent of the women and 45 percent of the men indicated they thought women were less qualified than men for leadership positions, says the researchers. But the researchers found that women were more likely to be more honest about their discriminatory feelings than men when given the chance.

"Given that even many women have reservations against women leaders, the societal and political promotion of gender equity has obviously not been successful at changing the attitudes of every potential future leader,” Jochen Musch, one of lead researchers, said in the news release.

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For many women trying to succeed in the workplace or various types of leadership roles, the results of this study likely are not surprising. Discrimination today might not be as obvious as it was decades ago, but it’s still just as prevalent — and just as harmful. About four in 10 working women (42 percent) in the United States say they’ve experienced discrimination because of their gender, according to the Pew Research Center.

Women are four times more likely than men to say they’ve been treated like they’re not competent because of their gender, says the Pew Research Center, and three times more likely than men to have experienced repeated small abuses or microaggressions at work because of their gender. And 15 percent of women say they’ve received less support from senior leaders compared to 7 percent of men, while one in 10 women say they’ve been passed over for the most important assignments compared to 5 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center.

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If people aren't willing to talk about their inherent bias, it can be tough to figure out ways to combat it. So how can you fight such an insidious form of discrimination? Harvard Business Review recommends doing everything you can to uplift other women in your office, especially women who may be multiply marginalized. Host lunches or panel events that center women's experiences, have open-door policies, create open channels of communication, share advice and personal experiences (including salary and benefits information), mentor each other, and hire other women whenever you can, says Harvard Business Review.

“Coming together as a group made people realize that their problems weren’t just specific to them, but, in fact, were collective obstacles,” Anne Welsh McNulty says in Harvard Business Review. “All of this vastly improved the flow of information, and relieved tension and anxiety. It reassured us that, though our jobs were challenging, we were not alone.”

This new research may show that discrimination against women is still as strong as ever, but that doesn’t mean women are powerless to fight it. By setting aside their differences and uplifting each other, women can help each other succeed in a world that doesn't want to talk about how it wants them to fail.