While women have made progress in achieving positions of responsibility and leadership, subtle biases still keep them from high-ranking jobs in many organizations, says a study in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. But, adds the study, there may be a strategy to overcome this.
Biases favoring men generally include company attitudes about leadership and what it takes to get ahead, ways of identifying talent, and definitions of competence and commitment.
Changing these ingrained biases is difficult, but easier when a "small-wins" strategy is employed, researchers said.
"Our research shows that the small-wins strategy is a powerful way of chipping away the barrier that holds women back without sparking the kind of sound and fury that scares people into resistance," said Debra Meyerson, who co-authored the study with Joyce Kubiac Fletcher, both Simmons Graduate School of Management professors at Stanford University.
The small-wins technique, modeled after the principles in 1930s community activist Saul Alinsky's book "Rules for Radicals," relies on small but meaningful changes individuals can make toward a larger cause. "Each small win is a trial intervention and a probe for learning, intended not to overturn the system, but to slowly and surely make it better," Fletcher and Meyerson wrote.
While the small-wins technique used in a company works best with the support of upper management, it also can work if co-workers band together. The first important step is to get together with other women and share experiences.
"It is important to differentiate what is you and what is bigger than you," Meyerson said. "This is a reality check . . . It is helpful to know that you are not alone and not imagining things." Informal meetings with co-workers over lunch or coffee help to identify the problem and possible solutions.
"It's surprising how quickly people can come up with ideas for small wins -- and how quickly they can be put into action," Meyerson said. Small wins are not formulaic, and each organization is unique in the way it expresses gender inequality. Most of it is unintentional, she noted, but simply rooted in the culture.
For example, in one case study for the report, the finance department of a large manufacturing company had a habit of overdoing work. Even when upper management wanted a back-of-the-envelope answer to a question, an analyst felt compelled to provide a full-scale report.
Analysts feared that asking "How much detail do you want?" might look like a way to avoid working late. This was particularly hard on women analysts, who, in an industry dominated by men, felt they had to work extra hard to demonstrate their competence and commitment. Many women with families found it difficult to stay late at the drop of the hat because of responsibilities at home.
To address the problem, the analysts designed a one-page form that asked senior managers to describe the parameters of each request. "The form simply took the onus off individuals to ask taboo questions, relieving women of the fear that they might appear less than committed and allowing all the analysts, not just women, to use their time more productively," the authors noted.
"This technique requires patience," Meyerson said. "Things won't change overnight. But what we are talking about is chipping away at many of the foundational processes going on in an organization that discriminates against women. It's not just the ceiling that's holding women back, but it's the foundation, the beams, the walls, the air. . . Small wins is about ferreting out the hidden barriers to inequality and effectiveness one by one."