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We should stop talking about implicit gender bias. Here's why.

You have likely heard this famous riddle.

A man and his son get in a terrible automobile accident and are rushed to the nearest emergency room where they are rushed into surgery. The attending physician looks at the boy, stops and says, "I can't operate on this boy, he's my son!" How is this possible?

More importantly, how is it possible that people struggle to get the correct answer? We all know that women can be doctors, so why do so many people get this wrong (74% in one study)? The answer is: implicit bias.

“Gender bias” and related terms like “unconscious bias” and “implicit bias” are in common use in organizations. But what do these terms really mean? In this, the first installment of our Career Equally newsletter, we explore all forms of gender bias – from implicit to explicit.


Let’s start with a basic definition of gender bias. Gender bias in the workplace is the systematic unequal treatment of people based on their gender (of course, this applies to all genders, but for the rest of this description we use the traditional gender binary to explain).

Implicit gender bias refers to unequal treatment that arises from stereotypes and associations that we are not consciously aware of in the moment when they occur. When most people hear the riddle about the surgeon, they – without conscious awareness – let the stereotypical association of man and doctor lead their thinking. Even people who consciously hold egalitarian views, including women, may exhibit implicit, unconscious gender bias.

You also likely know people who, for example, prefer to have male doctors or say that men make better leaders than women. When people express these views it means that they hold them consciously, that is, their values or beliefs align with sexism. This is explicit, conscious gender bias.

In our experience, companies love talking about gender bias as implicit and spend a lot of money on unconscious bias training. Part of the appeal, in our view, is that implicit bias removes the blame from individuals who could be accused of treating women differently in the workplace because implicit bias is by definition unintentional. But the consequences of implicit bias in the workplace are explicit and damaging. Calling a bias implicit tells you something about why it happened, but it does not minimize the consequences of that bias for those who are hurt by it, or excuse those who committed it from responsibility for fixing it. After all, it’s still gender bias.

Moreover, a focus on implicit bias should not take away from the reality that much of the bias women face in the workplace is explicit! When we visit businesses, we are floored by the number of male executives who espouse openly sexist views about women’s lack of suitability for top jobs in their organization or who state affirmatively that men are simply higher performers than women. Any organization that is sincere about addressing gender bias needs to focus on these explicit forms of gender bias, as well as the implicit.


Glass Ceilings & Glass Escalators

You have probably heard about the glass ceiling. It’s a metaphor for the invisible gender bias that keeps women from attaining as highly in the workplace as men. The idea is that women can see where they want to go in their careers, but there seems to be an invisible barrier that stops them from rising beyond a certain point. Glass ceiling gender bias is what most people think of when they think of gender bias. It captures all the ways in which women are treated worse than men in the workplace, from being excluded from an informal social gathering, having their ideas dismissed or credited to men, to being denied career opportunities that they are clearly qualified for.

However, there is another form

of gender bias that you may pay less attention to, namely all the ways in which men are treated better than women in the workplace. This is known as the glass escalator. The metaphor here is that men are propelled upwards in their careers by an invisible force that pulls them up through the hierarchy. We see glass escalators in action when men are promoted on their potential, before they are clearly qualified for a role, or are given special projects that help them gain new skills and visibility.

But glass escalator gender bias can take on subtler forms too. Once, we were invited to sit through the performance review of junior ranked individuals in an organization. We immediately noticed that the men in the room would finish their reviews of their male protégés by adding, “and he’s just a really good guy.” Of course, none of the junior women were described like this by their sponsors, partly because there is no female equivalent of “he’s a really good guy”. Our first recommendation to the organization was that they ban “good guy” descriptors from their performance reviews, which we are happy to report they readily adopted.

Many organizations are sincerely focused on helping women break the glass ceiling. But breaking glass ceilings only fixes part of the problem. To fully address bias in the workplace, organizations also have to address glass escalators. Focusing only on the glass ceiling leads to “fix the women” solutions, for example, training women to negotiate like a man or to “lean in” to leadership. The message for women is that they need to be different – and more like men – to get where they want to in their careers. The problem with this approach is that sometimes, it is men’s behavior that needs to be “fixed”. For example, an organization might find that men make riskier investment decisions than women, leading to significant financial losses. Clearly, training women to be as risk-seeking as men would not be helpful in this situation as it would cause more financial losses for the company. A better solution would be to train men to be as risk-averse as women in their decision making – i.e., to fix the glass escalator bias. Other times, the organization might be best off if both groups adjusted toward a middle point that sets the standard of equity. For example, men might overestimate their job performance and negotiate too aggressively with their managers for a pay rise, while women might underestimate and accept less than they deserve. The right solution would be something in the middle, tackling both the glass ceiling and the glass escalator.

Trying to take action on gender bias without understanding the differences between glass escalator and glass ceiling gender bias drives organizations to the wrong solutions and leaves women with the impression that they are the problem. That’s why we consider these definitions so foundational – and why, this week, we want you to practice applying them to your life.


How to Take Action: Rethink Gender Bias.

You would not be reading this if you were not concerned about gender bias at work. Let’s do an exercise to apply these ideas to the gender biases you observe in your career. Pick the gender bias you see as most problematic in your workplace for your first try, but redo it as many times as you (or perhaps your organization) needs.

1. Identify a domain in which women experience worse outcomes than men in your workplace and describe it – i.e., a gender bias.

2. How does your organization currently frame it? As a glass ceiling (most likely) or a glass escalator?

3. How does the framing influence the solutions in place to fix the gender bias? That is, does your organization focus on fixing the women, fixing the men, or fixing the system?

Let’s work through this exercise for one of the most common gender biases women face in organizations: bias in performance measures. We recently worked with an organization where customers reported lower satisfaction with women than men. The organization saw this as a glass ceiling problem and focused their efforts on bringing women’s scores up, through training and mentoring women. As a result, women experienced a time and psychological burden while men were free to work on other projects that would help them gain visibility and status. The company also tried to change the evaluation system, but this was met with fierce opposition from the men who believed that their scores were a reflection of their skills.

How different would this situation be if they framed the issue as a glass escalator problem?

First, they would have interrogated whether men were objectively providing better service than women. If they concluded that this was not the case, then they would have had proof that their performance rating system was inaccurate. Improving the rating system to be more accurate is something everyone can get behind – the company would no longer need the support of men who had been receiving unearned benefits all along and were loathe to give them up. The answer, then, was not to fix the men or fix the women. It was to ditch a system that had built-in bias and replace it with something that was better at evaluating performance and that evaluated women’s and men’s careers, equally.

Here is the sad truth. We talked the company through all of this. They understood, but their view was that the moment had passed – they had called it a glass ceiling and momentum had built behind "fix the women" solutions. Our goal is to prevent this from happening in your organization by educating you on the true nature of gender bias and empowering you to fix it. So, whenever you hear a “fix the women” solution in your organization, ask decision-makers to prove that it is a glass ceiling and not a glass escalator that is the problem.


Get in Touch

Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.

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