There’s a new obstacle in the road to gender equality in the workplace. According to a new study published in the journal Human Relations, women don't network as much as men because of implicit bias — aka, a set of unconscious, ingrained beliefs that set women back. The study found that women have "moral concerns" that may make them hesitant to use their social connections for professional gain, according to a news release. This hesitation is heightened by women’s tendency to “undersell their self-worth,” says the news release, which causes women to under-benefit from professional networking activities. While this isn't the case for every woman — there are many, overlapping, diverse reasons women are held back in the workplace — the study does show one subtle reason that may be holding women back from professional gains — a reason that's important to be aware of the next time you think to ask a senior coworker if she'd mentor you.
The study was based on interviews with 37 high-profile female leaders in German corporations, according to the news release. One participant, who’s name was not shared, told researchers, “Women look at networks from a social point of view … They do not ask the question, ‘How will this benefit me?’ Men, on the other hand, focus on the opposite, placing less emphasis on personal relationships and make networking decisions for egoistic and instrumental motives."
The researchers found that a concept called "gendered modesty" kept the study participants from having complete confidence in their abilities to make valuable contributions to their professional networks, according to the news release. This tendency to devalue oneself was identified as a female-centric trait by the female participants, says the news release, and the participants said that this behavior inhibited the growth of their careers.
The researchers’ findings reflect implicit biases women may have about themselves, or that they unconsciously fear others might have about them. According to The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias is the attitudes or stereotypes that can affect our actions and decisions on an unconscious level. These biases can be positive or negative, says The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and they can be based on race, ethnicity, age, appearance, gender, and more.
Implicit bias is so much harder to see than explicit bias because it’s happening on an unconscious level. “Today, managers are unlikely to announce that white job applicants should be chosen over black applicants, and physicians don’t declare that black people feel less pain than whites,” Keith Payne wrote for Scientific American. “Yet, the widespread pattern of discrimination and disparities seen in field studies persists.”
Implicit bias is very real, and it can also affect the way you treat yourself — as this new research shows. For the women in this study, their implicit biases — or their unconscious beliefs — about their self-worth kept them from using their business relationships to their fullest potential. Without the unconscious belief that they’re less valuable and experienced than their male counterparts, women would have no problem creating stronger business connections that would further their careers. Challenging implicit biases isn’t a simple task, but it can be done. The first step is to try to recognize your biases and to counter them whenever possible, says Harvard University’s Project Implicit.
The study participants do note feelings of exclusion due to the "old boys' club" atmosphere that is common to the business world. That's just an informal way of saying there's male privilege at play that also affects how a person participates in networking. Both privilege and bias — both explicit and implicit — create their own unique challenges to a person's career success. The researchers hope their findings motivate women to evaluate their positions in professional networks and to determine if they’ve been proactively using their contacts to grow their careers.