Second generation bias: Unearthing the subtle but powerful barriers to moving the gender parity needle
“Must have biopharma experience.” These four words nearly kept Sonya Zilka from applying for the position of vice president, human resources at Actelion. Despite having every other qualification listed in the job description and an impressive resume by any standards, she felt she could not apply because she lacked the industry-specific experience. It wasn’t until her friends encouraged her to contact the company and ask if they would consider her anyway that she took that step—and ended up getting the job.
“I realize, looking back, that as a woman, you read the job description and, if you don’t check every single box, you say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to apply because I don’t have all those things.’ But I know plenty of men who would say, ‘I have 80%. I’ll just throw my hat in the ring,’” Zilka says.
Barriers may be subtle, but their impact is not
Zilka’s story is a perfect example of just how subtle the remaining barriers to women in the workplace have become—and how inextricably tied to women’s own confidence they are.
An article in the Harvard Business Review notes that many CEOs who make gender bias a priority end up frustrated when their efforts don’t significantly move the gender parity needle. The problem, the article claims, is that what remains in the way is the very subtle, and very fragile, process of becoming a leader, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of one’s colleagues.
For men, this process often comes naturally as they take risks and are rewarded by the leaders above them, who easily recognize their high potential. For women, it’s much more complex. The challenge, according to the article’s authors, is that women must “establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when and how they should exercise authority.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the 2016 US presidential election. As Vox editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, wrote in a piece on the historical moment when Hillary Clinton became the first female presumptive nominee of a major US political party, “There is something about Clinton that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. Or perhaps there is something about us that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement.” Whatever one thinks about Clinton’s policies, he says, the reason we don’t appreciate her achievement is because she’s “good at politics in a way we haven’t learned to appreciate.” He, along with other reporters like Rebecca Traister of New York magazine, raise the important point that the traditional factor of charisma—of loud, confident speeches given to large, cheering crowds—that we look for in campaigning presidents is highly gendered. It isn’t Clinton’s style—and won’t necessarily work for a woman—and so she is changing the game, securing her path to leadership not through fiery speeches to large crowds, but through the slow and steady building of strong, collaborative relationships. In short, she is taking a feminine approach to fighting for the highest office in the land—an approach not yet recognized as valid.
Finding ways to root out bias
Businesses can change this context and create a culture that allows women to become confident leaders in their own way. To do it, leaders must take a long, hard look into every corner of their organizations to find the hidden barriers. Biases can be hard to recognize, but even small changes can be highly effective.
Take job descriptions. As Zilka notes, men tend to “throw their hat in the ring” even if they don’t meet all—or even most—of the criteria for a role. Women will not. The solution? Executives have found that when they revamp their job descriptions from a wish list of ideals to the actual requirements of the job, they attract more women and end up with a wider pool of highly qualified applicants to consider.
“We work at generalizing our job descriptions, shifting the focus from ideal characteristics to what is required to do the job,” Lisa van Capelle, former chief human resources officer at Quintiles [now QuintilesIMS], explains. “We also focus on the purpose of the role. The jobs here at Quintiles are about how we deliver a quality service, and focusing on that also helps to overcome any potential bias in our descriptions.” Focusing on purpose, she notes, also attracts women to the company and helps them succeed within it—a fact supported by research showing that challenging, passion-driven work and the ability to make a difference are top motivators for women.
Evaluating performance vs potential
The HBR article also states that gender stereotypes may color evaluators’ perceptions in performance reviews and leadership development tools. Noted leadership expert and author Anne Loehr further claims that while women are evaluated on their past performance, men are evaluated on their future potential—thereby reinforcing women’s sense that they must prove their worth before getting the job, while men need only show a capacity for achievement.
Human resources executives agree that establishing the right measures is essential. “In the past, I’ve seen comments in performance reviews like, ‘Great guy,’ or ‘Works hard,’” Zilka says. “At Actelion, we give managers a structure that pushes them to ensure that they’re talking about the duties of the job: What were the person’s objectives, and did they deliver against their objectives? Did they act with integrity? Did they drive for results? Did they apply critical thinking, problem solving skills?” The company also recently introduced a new talent review process that spells out highly objective criteria for both performance and potential. “We have these materials on hand in our performance review meetings. If someone starts to go off into something like, ‘Well, I don’t know if that person would move,’ or ‘They have a lot of family responsibilities,’ we simply call a time out and say, ‘Let’s come back to the criteria.’”
At Quintiles, the executive team focuses on three key factors in leadership evaluations: aspiration, agility and engagement. “We wanted to get away from the standard numbers-based ratings and to measure potential in a deeper, more meaningful way,” van Capelle says. “The metrics speak for themselves in terms of performance, but potential is really about the why behind those metrics. By evaluating these qualitative factors through conversations and other measures, you flip it around from what the manager thinks of the person to understanding why the person is doing what they do.” Quintiles looks at factors such as whether a person is taking on cross-functional roles to measure agility and uses a 360-degree review of the person’s team to help inform the engagement review and get a picture of the atmosphere a leader is creating around her.
When it comes to aspiration, the team evaluates this fresh every year. “Being conscious of our 63% female staff, we do this to avoid marking people as never wanting that next role just because they may not want it this year,” van Capelle explains. This goes far in combatting the all-too-often reality of women being “tracked” into roles that offer less potential for growth and reward.
Rethinking what’s essential
Much like the aforementioned job descriptions, Zilka and van Capelle say companies must also rethink some of the assumed requirements of the workplace, and the biases around them. Zilka notes the gender bias that shows up around hours spent working in the office, as revealed in a 2015 study by the Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative. The study showed that when women leave work early, it’s assumed by colleagues that they’re off to pick up a child; when men leave early, it’s assumed they’re off to meet a client.
“We need to continue to constantly question our assumptions about the requirements of any job,” Zilka says. van Capelle agrees, adding that Quintiles has a >50% work-from-home environment in which performance is measured based on goal-oriented metrics rather than how, or where, works gets done. Quintiles looks to further identify and address hidden bias through an employee experience survey that serves to help leadership understand what employees’ experiences are in their respective jobs.
Supporting each other
Not only is Zilka’s experience with the job application telling of subtle barriers, it’s also an example of the power of women—and men—supporting women in overcoming them. It was, after all, the encouragement of Zilka’s two friends (one a man and one a woman) that gave her the push she needed to apply.
“One thing that everyone can do is to play the role of suggester,” Zilka says. For her, this means volunteering regularly to help get more women to run for political office. “Women often would never think of running for office, even if they’re qualified, so I make it a point to suggest to them, ‘Hey, I noticed this position is open. You should go for it.’ This happens all the time for men, but is much more scarce among women.”
She also makes it a practice to create a supportive environment for women who come in to present to her company’s executive team. “Often, there are more men in the room in these presentations,” Zilka explains. “So I make sure that I’m fully engaged, nodding, giving positive reinforcement and just being a friendly face in that room. It’s not that the guys aren’t supportive, but it’s that I’m there to kind of say, ‘I got your back.’”
van Capelle stresses that support from senior women can go a long way in helping to remove hidden bias around perceptions of likability—that unfortunate reality that as women become stronger and more vocal, they end up being seen as less likable by both men and women. “Senior women need to hook arms with each other and display our mutual support to our colleagues to ensure that it’s further engrained,” she says.
At Quintiles, this is bolstered by the organization’s Women Inspired Network (WIN), 2013 winner of the HBA’s ACE (Advancement, Commitment and Engagement) award, which works to establish a corporate culture that inspires women to be leaders across the organization. “Our WIN works to help sponsor women within the organization and to help them with our experiences and our stories and to have women leaders helping aspiring women leaders,” van Capelle says.
She also concludes that, ultimately, women must take it upon themselves to seize this support. “When I look at the women within Quintiles who are identified as our next generation of leaders, the common themes are that they’ve taken ownership of their careers, gotten out of their comfort zones, and paid the support forward to other women through programs like WIN and the HBA.” For more on how to build the confidence to go for it, read our article on closing the confidence gap (pg. X).
Editor’s note: At the time of publication, IMS Health merged into Quintiles with Quintiles as the surviving company renamed Quintiles IMS Holdings, Inc. and known as QuintilesIMS.