Until recently, there’s been little to no concrete data regarding women’s behavior in the workplace — nonetheless, there’s no shortage of opinions on women’s behavior in the workplace.
We often tell women to “lean-in” and “speak up,” but perhaps they already do. Perhaps, it’s not biology but bias that encumbers working women.
Researchers have conducted a breadth of surveys and self-reported assessments over the years, but those methods of data collecting are inevitably prone to bias. The proliferation of digital communication data and the advancement of sensor technology, however, has made studying women’s behavior in the workplace devoid of bias more feasible.
Researchers at Harvard tracked the individual work habits of 100 people to determine if women acted differently than men in the workplace, as opposed to the previous research that’s been done to gauge the inherent differences in men and women. Simply, they wanted to determine whether men and women conducted themselves differently, talked to different people or spent more time performing different tasks.
Their test subjects: employees at a client organization, a large multinational firm in which women are underrepresented in upper management. In this company, women make up roughly 35 to 40 percent of the entry-level workforce and a smaller percentage at each subsequent level — women make up only 20 percent of people at the two highest seniority levels at this organization.
“We went in with a few hypotheses about why fewer women ended up in senior positions than men,” the researchers wrote in their report. “Perhaps women had fewer mentors, less face time with managers or weren’t as proactive as men in talking to senior leadership.”
Bias, as these define it, “occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently.” And their data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act, but rather in how people perceive their actions. The study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that, while women are promoted less than men and work for lower wages, women don’t actually behave differently than men in the workplace.
The researchers first collected email communication and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees across all levels of seniority in one office, over the course of four months. They then gave 100 of those individuals sociometric ID badges, which allowed them to track in-person behavior. Basically, those ID badges had sensors attached, which tracked users’ location and movement data, proximity to other badges, the volume of speech and the tone of voice, which would tell them who talks with whom, where people communicate and who dominates conversations.
The badges did not record any actual conversations or the content of exchanges, which weren’t deemed necessary for the study’s purposes. This also allowed the researchers to maintain privacy without having to make anyone aware that they were indeed being monitored, which could skew results since they’d presumably act differently.
Ultimately, there was no perceptible evidence that’d suggest women behave differently than men. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. While the researchers couldn’t see the types of projects that employees were working on, they found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations, men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority.
“Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated,” the researchers reported. “This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”
So what can companies do about bias?
The researchers suggest that companies focus on implementing bias-reduction programs and developing policies that level the playing field. For example, studies suggest that making promotions and hiring more equal by mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better decisions and fewer gendered choices.
“When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office,” the researchers add. “Only then can they transition from the debate about the causes of gender inequality (bias versus behavior) and advance to the needed stage of a solution.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.