Women being judged differently at work, says survey

Focus on behaviour and organisational culture is more important than policy, University of Cambridge study suggests

Organisations focus too much on gender policies and not enough on tackling behaviour, experts have said, in response to new research that found organisational culture remained a key barrier to female progression at work.  

The year-long study from Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, Gender Bias in Workplace Culture Curbs Careers, revealed gender biases remain pervasive across UK workplaces, with respondents from a cross-section of professions reporting cultural issues in their workplaces. 

In the survey of more than 5,000 people, almost three in four (74 per cent) women felt their workplace culture made it more challenging for women to advance their careers than men, a sentiment almost half (42 per cent) of men agreed with. 

A similar gulf was seen in the perception of how female behaviours are judged at work. More than half (53 per cent) of women said female colleagues were judged more negatively than their male counterparts when exhibiting the same behaviours in the last 12 months. 

In contrast, less than one in five (18 per cent) men noticed this happening to female colleagues over the same period. 

Dr Jill Armstrong, lead researcher at the Collaborating with Men programme, which produced the research, told People Management there was still a “pressing need to make people aware that their colleagues might have an entirely different perspective of the workplace they share”.  

“Those involved in the study have been surprised by the gulf in perceptions about the effect of unintentionally gender-biased thinking. It’s workplace culture that has to change if we are to create equality of opportunity,” she said.

Biased cultures are especially failing women of colour, with more than half (56 per cent) of women from a black, Asian and minority ethnic or mixed race background saying their workplace culture ‘often’ or ‘always’ presented career advancement challenges for women, compared to 48 per cent of white women.

Chloe Chambraud, gender equality director at Business in the Community (BITC), said the figures reflected previous research from McKinsey and others into microaggressions against minority women. 

“Our own research found black and ethnic minority women were more likely to experience sexual harassment and bullying, which has been confirmed by our most recent Race At Work survey,” she said. 

Chambraud added this was a problem for women whose race, sexuality or gender often made them feel like the only minority in the room. “You can try to diversify by hitting targets, [but] this will never change unless these women feel listened to and included.”

While women in senior roles face some of the highest levels of gender bias, with 81 per cent of senior female employees experiencing career advancement challenges, female managers are also reported to perpetuate gender biases. The majority of women who participated in the survey reported their female managers judged them differently. 

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, told People Management: “It’s not surprising to see women judging other women almost as harshly as men do. Women internalise misogyny and patriarchal norms and then replicate those attitudes and behaviours.

“The way to change that is to proactively challenge those attitudes and norms, raising the consciousness of everyone, and to put systems and processes in place which compensate and adjust for barriers in what is an unfair and biased workplace.”  

The report advocates five key recommendations to improving cultures of bias in the workplace, including facilitating conversations between male and female employees that highlight gender double-standards, questioning the choices of ‘promoting by merit’, and instigating reverse mentoring schemes.  

But Chambaud warns real change must come from behaviours, not initiatives. “Organisations still focus too much on policy and processes, which is not the full story,” she said. 

“Addressing unconscious bias is one thing, but if you want a culture that is conducive to women’s progression, you have to examine behavioural change.”