I recall sitting in one of my management course at Wharton listening to a highly intense conversation going around the classroom. The topic: bias in the workplace, specifically gender and cultural/ethnic. Sitting in my chair I thought the idea was absurd. Sure, there may be some gender or cultural bias occasionally, but not nearly to the degree that I am hearing claimed by my classmates, both fellow undergrads as well as MBA students. If someone succeeds its because they worked hard and if someone doesn’t succeed it’s because they failed in some way: surely it has nothing to do with some external bias against them.
I went on with my course work after this particular class session, finished up my degree and went into the workforce. After working for 2 years I came home to be with my children and didn’t give the idea another thought, until recently. As I began to listen to the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast put out by Stanford University, I heard two women, two highly successful women, share almost the identical story.
It went something like this:
“I was in a meeting at work. I made a suggestion about the course of action we should take; my comment was completely ignored. Less than five minutes later the gentleman sitting two seats down from me made the exact same suggestion and everyone said what a great idea it was and the executive leading the meeting decided to implement it.”
The other story was in a speaker setting:
“I was in the audience at a speaking event. Three different men at different times raised their hand to ask a question in the middle of the presentation. The speaker stopped and addressed their question. A few moments later I raise my hand to ask a question and the speaker gruffly said, ‘Hold all question to the end.’ Less than 3 minutes later another man raised his hand and the speaker promptly called on him and answered his question.”
“After the session ended and fellow in the crowd came over to me and said, ‘I saw what happened back there and I am so sorry.’ At that point I knew it wasn’t all in my head.”
Two different women in two different settings experiences the same mistreatment.
Then I came across this article, which references a study by Wharton Professor Katherine Milkman. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“All they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students,” notes NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. “And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities [were] systematically less likely to get responses from the professors, and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors.”
The more I have thought on this, the more I realize it is a real thing. The evidence is there, even beyond the two very compelling, but anecdotal examples I mentioned above.
So does this mean when we fail, when a woman or minority is passed over for a promotion or ignored or overlooked, we can blame circumstances and the system? I don’t think so. At least I know that won’t be my response, because despite the apparently real bias, I am not going to put the power over my success into someone else’s hands and make myself the victim.