November 25, 2013 - By:Sun Limei - Editor:Leo Yin

Women Now Facing Second Generation Sex Bias

Women in today’s workforce, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields, are experiencing the second generation of sex bias. [sina]

A great number of women in workplaces are stressed by inadequate resources, long work hours, increasing work demands and work-family balance, however, gender-biased workplace stressors are often the most difficult to cope with and to combat, largely because they're often invisible.

Unlike first generation gender discrimination --- intentional acts of bias against women --- women in today's workforce, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields, are experiencing a much more invisible second generation of gender biases that are impeding their advancement.

According to researchers at the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO), second generation gender biases are "work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face," yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men who have been dominant in the development of traditional work settings.

Invisible Barriers

Despite the fact that the social and economic status of women has improved greatly due to efforts to eliminate gender discrimination, it is apparent that the leadership gap between men and women still exists.

Women comprise over 50 percent of university graduates, but their presence falls off the ladder rather quickly as roles become more senior. According to the latest statistics released by Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women in business, women currently hold 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions

"When it comes to sending employees on a business trip, employers often ask women employees whether or not their families can be taken care of while they are away," said Han Qing, executive director of Healthcare and Seniors, Sodexo China. "Men seldom get asked the same thing."

This question may be regarded as a sort of invisible gender bias. Women who miss out on business trips because their employers believe they will not be able to manage their family and work responsibilities will probably also miss out on promotion opportunities.

More than 25 years ago, social psychologist Faye Crosby stumbled on a surprising phenomenon: most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it indeed exists. Many women have worked harder to take gender out of the equation — to simply be recognized for their skills and talents.

Second-generation bias does not require intent to exclude, nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context where women fail to thrive or reach their full potential. For example, women may be advised to take a staff role to take care of their families and find that they have been excluded from consideration for key positions. All these situations set an invisible barrier to women's advancement in workplaces.

Helping Women Unlock their Potential

Many highly-qualified women are held back by factors such as lack of access to informal networks where they can make important connections and the standard of promotion --- women are often evaluated primarily on performance while men are often promoted on potential.

McKinsey & Company undertook a research study on women's contributions to the U.S. economy and corporations and found that women leaders have the potential to contribute enormously to a company's competitive edge.

"Realizing the significance of women's roles in corporations, many companies have taken effective measures to help women fully demonstrate their abilities," said Han. "Building personal networks and providing suggestions and training on senior management skills are two important measures."

Han said that senior management staff can offer one-to-one training on management skills to women employees who have great potential to be promoted, which will not only boost women employees' confidence but also create a favorable working environment where women employees are greatly motivated to show their working capabilities and make greater contributions.

According to the McKinsey & Company research, if companies could raise the number of middle management women who make it to the next level by 25 percent, it would significantly alter the shape of the talent pipeline. More women who make it to senior management share an aspiration to lead, and more believe that getting to senior leadership is worth the cost. Advancing more women into these positions would in time help companies rebalance their executive committees, which in turn make more contributions to the company.

It would do well for companies to look at a broader range of candidates when making decisions on promoting staff members. While second generation gender bias may not be as obvious as other forms of gender discrimination, the ways in which it holds women back must not be underestimated.