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Begin with success > Scary truths no one told you > Unconscious Gender Bias – the Basics

Unconscious Gender Bias – the Basics

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

As part of my research for Professionelle’s “How to Own Your Career” seminar, I dug into where the oh-so-typical “good girl” behaviours of professional women come from.  In the process I was hit between the eyes with the concept of unconscious gender bias, the seeds of which are sown very early in our lives. We all – all! – grow to expect different things from men than we do from women, and these gendered generalisations shape both how women see themselves, and how the world sees women.

Sticky Floors

When we began Professionelle in 2007 we were fairly sure that if we could help spread the word about the business case for ‘women at the top’ then the numbers would start to shift in the right direction. Bzzz, wrong, zero points. For a while it perplexed me. Chairs of Boards, charged with creating shareholder value and open to the evidence that women directors are correlated with enhanced returns, were seemingly sincere when they stated they could not find suitably qualified women directors even though they wanted to. Similarly, some organisations that have provided a mix of networking and flexible working opportunities, instituted relevant measurements, and in some cases even linked managers’ performance ratings to the diversity of their team, have still failed to shift the dial on drawing more women through the pipeline.

Old Boys

There’s a limit to how much blame can be laid at the door of Old Boys’ networks and the affinity bias that fuels them, i.e. the tendency to choose people who remind us of ourselves in some way and who feel familiar and ‘safe’ to us. Board Chairs and CEOs are aware of these factors, know they risk being called on them and, as a result, take increasing care to make choices that appear independent of these factors. But something is going on and it has to do with a bias so deep-seated we are often oblivious to its workings.

Seeing is Not Believing

As we grow up we learn that men on average are taller than women.  It’s statistically true, and it’s a useful thing to know for when something’s out of reach and we have a sea of faces to choose a helper from. However, in an experiment in 1991, Biernat showed that when asked to choose whether a man or women is taller when shown pictures identical but for the gender of the subject, many of us say that the man is taller (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 61(2), Aug 1991). We see the man and woman as if they were representative of men and women in general and believe that the man is taller even when he clearly is not.

Why do we let our well-grounded expectations colour our perceptions of individuals to the extent we don’t see the evidence before our eyes? The fundamental reason for our reliance on these generalisations is how we sort and store information in our heads. Enter the word ‘schema’.


A schema is a cognitive framework or set of hypotheses about a category that helps us organise and interpret the vast amount of information we have learned and experienced. It helps us know how the category is likely to perform and that in turn helps us plan forward. We have these mental shortcuts about all sorts of categories of things or people… sticky tape, cats, taxi drivers… and they save us having to reassess and re-evaluate every time we meet a situation containing the category.

Gender Schemas

When these schemas are about what we can expect from men and women they are called gender schemas. It is very important to note that men and women form the same gender schemas, seeing each sex the same way. The research is very clear on this and I emphasise it lest anyone think the ‘problem’ lies only in men’s heads. There are many aspects to gender schemas. However, thumbnail sketches of the key psychological traits of each in middle class western society are:

  • Men: oriented to take action, independent, assertive, logical (summed up as ‘agentic’)
  • Women: oriented to others’ needs, nurturing, expressive (summed up as ‘communal’)

While schemas are hugely useful to us, they do have weaknesses. The key ones are that gender schemas, like all schemas, are self reinforcing, potentially inaccurate and largely unconscious.


Self-reinforcing means that we are more likely to notice and to remember things that fit our schema about a category and to dismiss or forget individual observations that do not match our expectations.  This makes it hard for us to update our schemas once they have formed.

In 2001, Emma Renolds researched classroom teachers and their attitudes (British Journal of Sociology of Education 22.3). One teacher, who held a common schema that primary school aged girls were hardworking but fundamentally untalented, referred to a highly academically able 11-year-old girl as “bossy” and “not as clever as she thinks she is”. It was more comfortable for the teacher to disparage what she saw as an outlier than to change her schema. By contrast, the teacher very readily accepted a highly able boy in the same class, saying, “He was born clever, that one,” because she expected boys to be innately talented – if often lazy.

Part of the self-reinforcing mechanism around schemas is that we are also likely to set higher standards for evidence that contradicts our expectations. In other words, it takes more to convince us that what we are seeing is not just a fluke.


Biernat’s experiment showed how a schema is likely to be wrong about individuals even when it is well-founded for the population. If gender-based generalisations can lead us to get something as straightforward as height wrong, how are we to handle judgements on characteristics like competence and leadership where there are no objective metrics? This is where the schema about the population itself can be wrong.  For example, working mothers and part-time workers are implicitly assumed by many in the corporate world to be less committed to work. Remember those words of Donald Trump on working mothers that one of our contributors recently quoted…

“She’s not giving me 100%. She’s giving me 84%, and 16% is going towards taking care of children.”

Of course, the fact, cited above, that schemas resist updating even in the face of repeated, conflicting evidence also means they risk becoming inaccurate.


Going back to height, it’s a curious fact that while only 4% of American men are over 74 inches tall, 36% of corporate American CEOs are that tall, or more (Judge and Cable 2004). Apparently, similar patterns are observed among Generals and Admirals. If we accept that Board Chairs do not scribble “and make sure you bring us a tall one” in the margin of their recruiting brief, perhaps there is another process at work, one that proceeds unconsciously from an implicit positive association of height with professional competence and social esteem. (If you’re wondering, among women height is also positively correlated with success and income. Your mother was right to tell you not to slouch).

Many of our assumptions and generalisations about men and women operate largely below the level of our awareness and are consequently very difficult to track or control. They are doubly difficult to grasp because, as professionals, most of us sincerely believe that we make decisions and choices based on fair and logical criteria and we expect the same to hold when others are judging us.

But it seems we don’t judge fairly, or not fully, and not all the time. Why not? Because we are the product of our cultures and many years of experience and observation, that’s why. If you don’t believe me, try this next test.

Implicit Association Test

To quote the Implicit Association website (,

“Most studies available at Project Implicit examine thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or outside of conscious control.  This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods.”

Try it! I have done the test that looks at Gender and Career. As a professional woman myself, and the co-director of a business dedicated to the career advancement and resilience of other professional women, I, surely, should have no bias against women in careers. Yet my results show that in my head there’s a moderate implicit association between women and family and between men and career. Even knowing what the test was trying to determine, I still produced this result.

Missing Pieces

Some parts of a schema are defined by what’s not there. One element missing from the gender schema for women is leadership. Another, which I’ll explore here, is professional competence.

Men and women alike expect women to be less competent and should a woman be unequivocally able (like the 11-year-old girl in Renold’s study), the tendency is to find a reason for this, such as: she must have worked very hard to do so well.

A brief explanation of why ‘woman’ and ‘professional competence’ develop as out-of-synch schemas includes these elements:

  • We perceive men as oriented to action and tasks and to logic and women to nurturing and expressing and emotions. The former cluster is perceived as more relevant to professional competence.
  • Most senior professionals are men; every prestigious or high paying profession is populated at the highest levels by men. By contrast, the lower levels are disproportionately occupied by women. Thus men “look right” for the top jobs and we perceive them as likely to succeed at them. Having perceived them that way, our schemas self-reinforce so that each minor male success is noted and credited.

Mothers’ expectations of their children in part reflect the mothers’ gender schemas (Jacobs & Eccles, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63(6), Dec 1992) – and children’s self beliefs are apparently more strongly affected by how their mothers perceive them than how they perceive themselves. It follows that, if in our mothers’ gender schemas girls are less competent at maths and science (as an example), this will to some extent become a self fulfilling prophecy for us, their daughters.

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