From The Editor’s Desk: Willing to Update Your Bias Software?

November, 2015

Today, just about all of us are feminists.

In case you think that’s an insult or otherwise inappropriate, check your dictionary. Mine says a feminist is someone who believes men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

But turning our feminist beliefs into reality is a bigger challenge than expected. You have seen relevant statistics before, so I found some you probably haven’t seen. Only 22 women are the CEOs of S&P 500 companies, according to the latest survey by the advocacy group Catalyst. That’s a mere 4.4 percent.

Those are big mainland companies, but what about Hawaii? We are still compiling this year’s Hawaii Business Black Book of top executives at Hawaii’s biggest companies and nonprofits, which we’ll publish next month. But in last year’s Black Book, only about 20 percent of the C-Suite executives were women. Better than 4.4 percent, but a long way from 50-50.

A report by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, the nonprofit founded by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, helps explain why it’s so hard to turn a widely held principle into reality. Nearly 30,000 employees and 118 companies participated in the study, which McKinsey says builds on similar research it conducted in 2012. (Full report at

Here are some especially revealing numbers: 74 percent of CEOs surveyed say they prioritize gender diversity. But when you ask the employees of those companies, only 49 percent of the male employees agree that their CEOs give priority to gender diversity and just 37 percent of the women. Here is what she is proposing:

And when employees were asked: Does your direct manager promote gender diversity?” only 31 percent of women said yes.

Here’s something that appears counter-intuitive: The higher women climb in an organization’s hierarchy, the more likely they are to say their gender has inhibited their success. Among entry-level women, only 23 percent say, yes, their gender has inhibited their success, but among female middle managers, 31 percent say yes, and among female senior managers, 40 percent say yes.

Social science studies have proven that many forms of discrimination are ubiquitous. For instance, you put the same completed test paper in front of men and women evaluators, and put a man’s name on one copy and a woman’s name on the other, and the man’s version consistently gets higher scores. The same unconscious bias crops up in studies of men and women’s resumes and their workplace evaluations.

The Lean In/McKinsey report offers many ways to counter such unconscious bias, including what the study calls the Likeability Penalty. “When a man is successful, his peers often like him more; when a woman is successful, both men and women often like her less,” the study says. One study confirmed the bias by simply alternating the name on the same case study between Howard and Heidi. Howard was called likeable but Heidi was labeled selfish and not someone you wanted to hire or work for.

The solution: “Listen for the language of the likeability penalty, including that a woman is ‘political’ or ‘pushy.’ When you hear biased language, request a specific example of what the woman did and then ask, ‘Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?’ ”

Sounds like its time to update our brain’s unconscious-bias software to 2.0. Or are you too comfortable with the old version to change?


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Steve Petranik