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Professors discuss dangers of implicit bias in the workforce

| Monday, February 17, 2020

To conclude the annual Notre Dame Ethics Week, the Mendoza College of Business and the Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership sponsored a panel Friday entitled “Women in the Workforce.” The event discussed the structural disparities women face in their careers while offering advice to students to recognize and combat this inequality.

Each of the panelists began by discussing her area of interest in regards to the manner in which women must approach their careers to be successful, answering questions from audience members and moderator Robin Kistler, director of non-degree programs for the Stayer Center for Executive Education.

Associate management and organization professor Cindy Muir discussed how women continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership despite graduating at higher rates than men and securing higher GPAs in a society that still views the workplace as predominately male-oriented.

“The research shows that there are no performance differences between men and women at work,” Muir said. “There’s a recent study that summarizes 142 separate studies collapsing across almost 500,000 employees, and they confirmed the existence of a significant pay gap, but no difference in performance.”

In order for women to achieve the same gains as men in the workplace, women need to outperform men, but Muir said encouraging women to work harder and better will not alone ensure parity.

“The problem is research is also clear on something else,” Muir said. “When women speak out against structural and societal issues — like I’m doing right now — they tend to be viewed unfavorably, and they’re seen as self interested.”

As a result, at the individual level Muir said she believes women can absolutely achieve higher levels of leadership if they can consistently perform better than men “without making a whole lot of noise,” but this sentiment may not transfer to the group level. For the good of the group, advocating for what is right is essential, Muir said.

Muir also emphasized that although overt bias in the workforce has largely been eradicated in America, women still face discrimination in their careers, and identifying the bias is simply more difficult than before.

“What we’re dealing with now is a much more subtle, almost invisible, form of bias, that people aren’t even aware that they’re doing, and both women and men are susceptible,” Muir said.

Alice Obermiller, director of experiential learning and leadership development for Mendoza College of Business, discussed systemic issues in companies that often go unnoticed despite newer safeguards put in place to fight bias in the workplace. 

“I’m not even sure leaders, within these companies, even HR are fully aware of how discriminatory they can actually be,” Obermiller said. “And so I think as women, we have to become more savvy to pay attention to those things before we enter those companies, and really understand what we’re getting into so that we don’t get halted in our careers before they even get started.”

In particular, Obermiller urged women to pay attention to old paradigms of leadership and to be wary of companies who reward more masculine and autocratic types of behaviors, who simultaneously espouse to be collaborative and flexible. Although heroic and bold behaviors are most often attributed to men, Obermiller said those characteristics are not and should not be considered gender specific. 

Instead of associating certain characteristics with men and women, Obermiller advocated for authenticity. 

“I think that we need to start valuing people for who they are, and letting people find that sort of voice within them,“ Obermiller said. ”Whatever works, because I think there’s sort of the best of both worlds to have.” 

Continuing the discussion regarding authenticity, management and organization professor Angela Logan mentioned the importance of bringing the divide between an individual’s work life and personal life. Logan said most often individuals develop the same leadership skills in both, but fail to merge the two. 

“What is it that keeps us going when we have the major catastrophic issues in life? And what are the times that we’re dealing with —  as I like to refer to it — death by 1,000 paper cuts?” Logan asked. “What is it that keeps us grounded and keeps us focused in on making sure that we are staying true to ourselves and being as impactful as we can in our nine to five world?”

In order to build resilience, Logan encouraged people to first stop and think about their life and consider whether they spend enough time engaging in activities they truly enjoy.

“I will be the first to admit, the things that bring me joy are often the things that I spend the least amount of time doing,” Logan said.

In relation to this discussion on authenticity, Obermiller said she believes it is not only important for individuals to have a strong understanding of who they are, but she also expects leaders to know and understand the people who work for them. Good leaders can adapt to situations and work with a variety of personalities to be effective, thus bringing out the best in everyone, Obermiller said.

“I don’t know that it’s always that easy to get people to accept us for who we are,” Obermiller said. “But as women in particular, we have to do what we have to [do] in order find our voices and find it in a way that we know we will be heard.”

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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a member of the class of 2021 majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and is a former ND News Editor for The Observer.

Contact Serena