November 18, 2022

Gender Bias Adds Up


The silhouette of a woman sitting at a desk in her office. A cityscape through the window next to her.


In 2021, hiring and pay discrimination based on gender are at least on people’s radars, not to mention illegal. But what if the discrimination is more subtle and quotidian? The everyday kind of discrimination that doesn’t add up to a lawsuit can be just as damaging to women’s careers as any landmark hiring settlement, but is ignored by the law and marginalized by HR. This is Jessica Nordell’s argument, which she lays out in a recent New York Times op-ed describing the research for her recent book The End of Bias.

Nordell contends that, although much of the discrimination women face in the workplace would never lead to formal complaints on their own, the effects are the same, marginalization, being frozen out of decision-making, and being passed over for promotions.

In the op-ed, Nordell describes a model she and several computer scientists developed to simulate what would happen to cohorts of workers over a 10-year period based on a set of rules that incorporate the kind of gender bias discussed in the research literature Nordell reviewed. Her findings, while not surprising, are certainly dismaying, with women less likely to make it to the highest level in her workplace simulation and more likely to spend more time getting there than male counterparts.

Unfortunately, what is to be done is not entirely clear. Generally, Nordell says that leaders need to be fully committed to overhauling practices and culture, but the specific interventions, unlike in her simulation where they imposed quotas which had some effect on bias, are still so dependent on the profession, social pressures beyond the workplace and who is actually involved in the decision-making process.

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