Scientists’ Sensors Show Gender Discrimination and Inequality at Work

Woman Faces Much Bigger Steps than Man: Gender discrimination and inequality at work

Women have fought for decades for equality at work, and in their paychecks. After all that time and effort, gender discrimination and inequality at work is a persistent problem in companies across the country. Some say that is because of the different choices men and women make in business. But a new scientific study shows that the problem is bias, not behavior.

In this blog post, I will review a recent scientific study using sociometric badges, which measured social interactions on the job. I will discuss how the results demonstrated gender discrimination and inequality at work was based on bias, rather than performance. I will discuss how women can use objective evidence to fight back against workplace discrimination.

Do Women and Men Behave Differently at Work?

Women employees face challenges of gender discrimination and inequality at work all the time. They are underrepresented at the management and executive levels. They are paid 80.5% of the wages of men nationwide. And they are often passed over for promotions within their unit or company.

Gender discrimination and inequality at work is illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act prevent employers to make hiring, employment, and pay decisions based on a person's sex or gender. The law protects women who are assigned worse shifts, "protected" from hazardous assignments (which often come with higher compensation), or are not promoted because their bosses believe them to be "less serious" about their work than their male counterparts. In addition, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prevents employers from considering if a person is having, or could have children, as a basis for hiring decisions.

Despite all the laws protecting women (and men) from gender discrimination, unequal pay, and discrimination based on family status, women still face harassment and unequal decision making at work every day. Why this happens continues to be a question. A prevailing thought has been that the difference stems from the way men and women work and the choices they make about their careers -- that women take more time off for family or are not as aggressive at negotiating salaries, for example. But until recently there was no objective scientific evidence to support or challenge this assumption.

Sociometric Study Objectively Shows Gender Discrimination and Inequality at Work

Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, and Ben Waber recently published such a study in the Harvard Business Review, which sought to fill that gap. They said that previous work in the field had all been based on self-reporting by coworkers. That method is itself prone to bias, making it unreliable within the scientific community. Instead, Turban and his team used objective measurements to investigate whether differences in behavior drove gender inequality in the workplace.

The team used a large, multinational firm as a test case. Women were underrepresented at the firm, as they are in many large businesses, making up only 35-40% of entry-level workers and 20% of high-seniority employees. To determine if this was the result of behavior, the research team went on an information gathering mission. They collected email communication and meeting schedules from hundreds of the company's employees. Then they gave 100 of those employees sociometric badges. These devices used sensors that measured movement, proximity to other badges, speech volume and tone, and location. They told the researchers who the employees talked to, where, and who was dominating the conversation. They then reviewed the data anonymously, measuring it by gender, position, and length of time at the office.

The team's scientific hypothesis was that fewer women ended up in senior positions because they had fewer mentors, spent less time with managers, and didn't proactively talk to senior leadership in the same way men did. They were wrong.

Instead, the study showed almost no differences in the behavior of men and women. The Harvard Business Review reported:

"Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. We couldn’t see the types of projects they were working on, but we found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were."

Gender Discrimination Isn't a Matter of Women Not Playing in "the Boy's Club"

Another theory for why women don't advance the same way as men within a company is that they don't have access to the informal networks within the company -- "the boys club." But the researchers found no differences in the genders' direct interaction with management. Women were just as important as men to the social network at the office.

Workplace Inequality is Due to Bias, Not Behavior

At the end of the study, the researchers found that behavior simply could not explain women's experience of gender discrimination and inequality at work. They reported:

"Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated."

The data implies that women are treated differently because of how people perceive their actions, rather than their behavior itself. The bias women experience includes how their work is perceived at the office, and what is expected about their behavior at home. Women are perceived to be:

  • More likely to leave the workplace to raise a family
  • Do more of the housework
  • Be responsible for the family's children
  • Be less committed at work.

What Women Can Do if They Face Gender Discrimination and Inequality at Work

Now that there is at least one scientific study providing objective measurement that gender bias, and not behavior, causes discrimination and inequality at work, women can use that study to support their push for a fairer work place. When women discover they have been passed over for a promotion or a raise, or are being paid less for substantially the same work, they can use objective data to support their complaints. Whether it is as simple as counting sales figures or meetings, or as complicated as a day-by-day journal of interactions with management, these objective measurements can be useful should your matter ever go to court.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys can use objective evidence like the kind gathered in the study to prove that you were the victim of gender discrimination and inequality at work. If you believe you are being treated differently or paid less than your coworkers because of your gender, we will help you review the facts and file a complaint with the EEOC, or in federal or state court. Contact our gender discrimination attorneys today to start fighting for an equal work place.

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