Women Are Held Back at Work Due to 30 Biases Out of Their Control, Says New Study: ‘They Were Never Quite Right'

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Gender bias and discrimination have held women back in the workplace for generations, but new research indicates gender-based judgments barely scratch the surface of ways professional women are criticized throughout their careers.

In a recent study of 913 women who answered open-ended questions, researchers found 30 common personality traits and identity-based characteristics that women say were used against them at work, according to a research summary published in Fast Company.

The women included in the study work in four female-dominated industries in the U.S. (higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law and healthcare), and responded to questions including:

  • What additional identity factors do you feel have influenced your experiences at work?
  • Other than gender bias, what types of biases have you encountered at work?

"The summary point that we came to was that it didn't matter what the women were, they were never quite right," Amy Diehl, a researcher on the report alongside Leanne Dzubinski and Amber Stephenson, tells CNBC Make It.

For example, age is a consistent challenge for women leaders: Some say they were told they were too young to lead, while others were deemed too old. There's also a double-standard by gender, as one physician noted: "I am middle-aged, and men my age are seen as mature leaders and women my age as old."

Women receiving this criticism may interpret it as a personal failing or to suppress their career ambitions. As Diehl puts it, a woman who's been told she's too young to be promoted may think, "I just need to wait until I'm older; then I'll be ready to lead."

The 30 characteristics that women say were used against them in the workplace include:

  1. Accent
  2. Age
  3. Attractiveness
  4. Body size
  5. Class
  6. Color
  7. Communication style
  8. Cultural identity
  9. Dietary restrictions
  10. Education
  11. Employment history
  12. Ethnicity
  13. Gender conformance
  14. Health
  15. Intellectual ability
  16. Marital status
  17. Nationality
  18. Occupation
  19. Occupational position
  20. Parental status
  21. Personality traits
  22. Physical ability
  23. Political preferences
  24. Pregnancy
  25. Race
  26. Religion
  27. Residential location
  28. Seniority
  29. Sexual orientation
  30. Veteran status

Critiques over age, parental status, others are 'red herrings' for underlying gender bias

Another major point of criticism is parental status, and women can't win whether they have kids or not: One single, divorced lawyer and mother of pre-schoolers says she was passed up for career opportunities "due to a perception by my male bosses that I cannot or should not handle [larger matters]." Meanwhile, a child-free physician was expected to work harder and accomplish more than other female colleagues with child-care responsibilities, according to the study.

Bias based on race, ethnicity, color and nationality came up in a number of ways. Women of color were targets of microaggressions in the workplace, like a Black faith-based leader who described being regularly talked over by white men, and a Filipina physician who's regularly mistaken for a nurse.

There was even a double-standard in terms of how men and women were treated based on their health conditions. One physician developed ovarian cancer while serving as an officer in the public health service and responded to the study that "the plan was to discharge me ... even though men with prostate cancer didn't have to go through that."

Researchers say these identity-based criticisms are often a "red herring" for gender bias.

"It didn't matter the characteristic, they were just being criticized for this and that and the other thing," Diehl says. "We realized it wasn't because of that particular [issue]" but rather "the underlying gender bias was the cause, and the criticisms are really just excuses the women were given."

What it'll take to support women in leadership

Businesses have a financial interest in ensuring greater gender equity and diversity: Organizations that are diverse across race and gender, especially at senior leadership levels, perform better than those that aren't, according to McKinsey research.

Researchers say there are a number of concrete ways businesses can better address their bias against women to support and promote them in their careers.

One "simple and powerful tool" is to use the "flip it to test it" method, says Stephenson — "Could you ever imagine this being said about a man?" Using the 900-plus comments from women in their study, "the answer was always no," she tells CNBC Make It.

Managers can also make sure they bake in constructive feedback for women professionals, who are more likely than men to receive negative feedback that's subjective rather than objective, and feedback that's too vague to be improved upon. Researchers say a lot of feedback directed toward women focuses on more team-based skills like being cooperative or coping with politics, while men are often encouraged to develop leadership skills like setting a vision, leveraging power and being assertive.

Leaders should encourage employees of all genders to develop both sets of skills.

Finally, researchers say it's important that women in these positions do not internalize identity-based criticisms. Instead, consider whether feedback is objective, constructive and warranted — and recognize that identity-based criticisms are part of a larger pattern of bias against women.

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