Why Are Gender Issues So Prevalent?

Dec 15, 2017

2017 was a year that began with a series of women’s marches and is ending with a long list of accounts of sexual abuse, and a loud out-crying of #MeToo. It is clear we still have a lot of gender issues as a society. Why are gender issues ranging from abuse of power, pay parity, unconscious bias, and micro-inequities, still so deeply rooted in our society in 2017? 

I believe, part of the issue is that gender is just one aspect of much more complicated group dynamics.

As an individual, we are members of many different groups. Dr. Clay Alderfer and his pioneering work on Embedded Intergroup Relations theory identified the two basic categories of groups that people belong to - Identity groups and Organizational groups. Identity groups are made up of people who have some common biological factors (ex: race, gender), have been part of some similar historical experience (ex: 9/11 survivor), or have experienced social forces resulting in similar worldviews (ex: socioeconomic class) (Alderfer, 1982). Organizational groups are made up of people who share common positions within an organizational context or have similar experiences and viewpoints (ex: management, union, executive, grade level, etc.).

Every person has multiple group memberships, and different people have different unconscious biases about groups for which they are not a member. For years, psychologists have found that people naturally gravitate and prefer people who are like them. It is the in-group bias. The research has also found that we unconsciously discriminate against those that are not like us – the out-group bias. However, these biases are a natural state of the human brain. It evolved when we needed to quickly determine friend or foe/threat. These biases are a natural way that the brain handles all the information that it takes in, so it can quickly make decisions and not get overwhelmed.

Often, we talk about bias and discrimination only as it relates to the most obvious and visible identity groups – gender and race. Organizations spend millions of dollars on diversity programs that make people aware that they have unconscious bias and hope that through this awareness, we will have more diversity and equitable representation of women and minorities in our organizations. Yet for all this investment, there is no real change.

The first problem is that you really can’t make people aware of their unconscious bias in the moment, because it is unconscious, or outside of your conscious awareness. Many companies and training providers realize this, and they have begun changing organizational systems that can lead to unconscious bias, by taking names off resumes to achieve a more diverse candidate slate. This helps to get more women and minority candidates into the hiring process, but then people’s unconscious bias takes over and we begin to discriminate based on a variety of factors – those factors being our embedded group memberships. Every person represents multiple identity and organizational groups in their interactions. The groups that they are unconsciously seen as representing or their membership in the “in-group” depends on the person with whom they are interacting, and the unconscious groups they represent. So, for example, two people share a common identity group (both are women) yet come from very different socioeconomic classes. Depending on the interaction, they can come closer together and more strongly identify as women and similar (same in-group) or grow further apart because of the socioeconomic class difference (different groups and one becomes the out-group). In-group and out-group inclusion is dependent on the context and interaction. In the last presidential election, many people thought that women would vote for Hilary Clinton for president because she was a woman, and women wanted to see a woman president elected in their lifetime. But, that treats the female voter as one dimensional, or only voting for a person because they are both women (i.e. a member of the same identity group). Humans are not one dimensional and we should stop acting like they are.

We are complex. Broad stereotypes about men and women based on membership in their gender identity group is very limiting. We often hear talk about different communication styles (remember “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus”), or a woman’s leadership style. There are countless women’s leadership development programs and millions in training dollars spent to grow women leaders, that are based on a foundation that leadership effectiveness and style is different, based on your gender. These broad stereotypes promote generalizations that do little to truly improve anyone’s leadership effectiveness or increase the representation of women in senior leadership positions.

If you want to improve representation, then you need to begin with changing the group memberships that are focused upon when making decisions (i.e. more people need to be thought of as the in-group vs. the out-group). Our brains are wired to take short-cuts in our decision making, as it is too taxing and takes up too much energy to truly process every decision. Our brain speeds this up by relying on “hacks” (also known as heuristics). It is here in the "hacks"/heuristics where the unconscious bias comes in. Some of the most common used decision-making “hacks” are the similarity principle and the in-group bias, and they are often used in conjunction. The similarity principle is that we associate things (including people) into groups if they are perceived to be like one another, and we like people who are more similar to us (whether that similarity is opinion, personality, background or lifestyle). Therefore, what happens at an unconscious level is that we meet a person and connect with one of that person’s group membership (can be identity group or organizational group) and we like them because we perceive them to be similar to ourselves. This puts the person in our “in-group”. However, when we meet a person who is dissimilar (i.e. diverse) from us and can’t find similarity in their group memberships (identity or organizational group) with our own, we put them in the “out-group”, and then use another cognitive bias and think of them in a more negative context than you would your own group.

So how do you deal with this? One of the most fundamental ways is by changing who is perceived as being in the “in-group”. If you relate to people on the highest level of group membership, (ex: humans), you change who is perceived as being in the in vs. out-group. Let me give you an example: Today in the US, we are a nation of many different identity groups – different races, gender, sexual orientation, political party, etc. These are sub-groups of “American”, as we are all part of a larger group known as Americans, as we live in the US. If the US was attacked, we would not be talking about the different sub-groups (men vs. women, Democrats vs. Republicans), as we would unite under our common similar group, “Americans”. Being an American becomes the similarity between the various other identity groups. These sub-groups are no longer “out-groups”, as we are all part of a larger group, “Americans”. We identify at a country and patriotic level. Let’s go a step further, and say the world was being attacked by aliens. Our separate nations would no longer be the in-groups that we relate to, but rather our commonality as humans would become the “in-group” and the aliens would be the out-group or enemy. So, you just need to change the make-up of the decision-making, power-holding, “in-group” (i.e. the one that has historically been elite, white male-dominated).

Here is the complication and why gender issues are still so prevalent. Even when you change the in-group – let’s say to a group that has a female leader or several female leaders. Surely, female leaders don’t discriminate against other female leaders – Yes, they do and not just against those that they feel threatened by. They use other unconscious biases and select people out of the “in-group” based on the person’s other group memberships (identity and/or organizational) – age, socioeconomic class, whether you have children or not, etc. You have a “girls club” instead of an “old boys network”. Yet the result is the same – you lack diversity; often diversity of perspective. With that being the case, why is everything boiled down to the common criteria of gender?

When we do this, we are oversimplifying the true issues around diversity and inclusion, in the workplace. We are overlooking the complex intergroup dynamics that make up human interactions and decision-making. Gender is context, not the be all, end all. It is one of the many group memberships that a human has. The gender you identify with does not define you. It is a piece of a more complex puzzle, that makes up who we are and how we are perceived. Let’s start dealing with that complexity if we truly want to impact the gender issues we face as a society.

If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more, check out NonstopWomen, dedicated to helping women manage their work and life while maintaining their sanity. Subscribe and get a free copy of my new book, “Career Catalyst: 9 Drivers of Career Success and Fulfillment”. You can also connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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