On Friday a jury ruled in favor of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the defendant in the widely followed gender-discrimination suit brought by Ellen Pao. Pao alleged that the firm failed to prevent gender discrimination, did not promote her due to her gender, retaliated against her for complaining, and eventually fired her for complaining in 2012.
Significantly, the case was focused on the subtle unconscious biases directed against women in the workplace, rather than overt discrimination. Pao did not claim that anyone told her that she could not progress to senior partner on the basis of her sex (much less that such a policy was in place), but that she was excluded from other opportunities related to her career progression due to her gender and held to a different standard than men.
Unconscious bias refers to the assumptions we automatically make about individuals’ capabilities or other personal attributes based on their race, gender, or other identifications. We expect and encourage men to wield power; when women exercise their voice in the workplace, there is frequently a negative, emotional reaction from their male and female colleagues. This is unconscious bias, and the research supports its existence. According to a study by Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll, male executives who spoke up more often were rated 10% higher in competency by their (male and female) peers, while female executives exhibiting the same behavior had their ratings dinged by 14%.
Pao’s reviews contained what appeared to be conflicting advice – to speak up more, but not too much. To give her opinion, but not be cocky. The implication, of course, is that a woman has to be “one of the guys” in order to succeed in the modern working world – but that her likeability will suffer as she does so. Some of Pao’s colleagues described her as “always positioning” with “sharp elbows”. Such language, of course, is the adult translation of childhood’s “bossy” – a word the ban-bossy movement has decried as detrimental to young girls, noting how boys who develop leadership skills are called a leader, while girls are ridiculed as bossy. That grown women still face such attitudes in the workplace is indicative of how imbedded these biases are in our society.
The biases may be subtle, but they manifest themselves in outright aggressive ways, from job loss to career stagnation. Pao may have lost her case, but firms will do well to take heed, as women and managers educate themselves on the existence and consequences of bias.