How Implicit Biases Complicate Female Mentorship

“Do you even want a career?” my Chair pointedly asked me, after I (Yasmine) revealed I was pregnant and asked for an unpaid extended maternity leave. This question came after my Chair had explained to me she had put her baby in daycare at six weeks, and that 25 years later, said child was doing just fine. As a 29-year-old, early-career, tenure-track professor looking for mentorship and support, this was not one of my favorite conversations. I felt guilty for being pregnant, and that my concerns about returning to work after only six weeks were entirely dismissed. Years later, it worked out: I got tenure without even pausing the clock. However, I always wanted to go back and say, “You know, I could have really looked up to you and admired you; you could have helped me develop as a female academic and a female leader, but instead you made me doubt myself.” 

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I (Kim) had just returned from a very austere Army combat deployment to Afghanistan. Having spent the last three years in “trailblazing” roles, I wanted to start a family. I reached out to a mentor whose early career mirrored mine. She stated she was “surprised” at how “selfish” I was being, as my personal goals did not align with the professional expectations she had for me. She said I should be above all the “traditional” female roles, and that “my cannon was my child and my rifle was my husband.” I could not believe that a female mentor, who I presumed would understand my perspective, could make me feel like an absolute failure of a woman. It was not until seven years later that I reflected on the damage that conversation caused. I would not marry for another eight years, and to this day still have to overcome tremendous guilt for having personal desires that do not align with the expectations of others. 

Both of these anecdotes are just that—anecdotes. Yet, they illustrate missed opportunities for meaningful mentorship between female professionals. In this series of articles, we explore why the female leader-subordinate relationship may have unique tension, and how this relationship can be improved with a renewed emphasis on mentorship.

The changing nature of gender bias

We are fortunate that, in 21st-century America, explicit bias against women has been greatly reduced. However, despite female advancement in the workforce, leadership is still disproportionately male in an array of fields including politics, business, religious institutions, legal professions, and academia.1 The consequences of gender inequality in leadership can include women having less power in decision-making, reduced access to other opportunities, and lower compensation. On an organizational level, a lack of female leadership can result in less diversity and fewer female role models for up-and-coming leaders. 

On a societal level, less exposure to female leaders means that our prototype of a leader can be viewed as disproportionately “male.” In other words, the more we are exposed to male leaders, the more we are inclined to see leadership as inherently “masculine.” For example, we may believe that a leader requires “level-headedness” and agency (being authoritative and decisive),  and that women are “too emotional” and lack these agentic qualities. What can result is a bias against female leaders that is more often implicit—that is, without conscious awareness. 

Research has demonstrated how implicit biases can influence perceptions and behaviors. In an analysis of 321 introductions for speakers at a medical conference, men only used the professional title 49.2% of the time for their female colleagues, versus 72.4% of the time for other males, revealing an implicit bias.2 Other research suggests that we are more likely to attribute a female leader’s successes to outside factors, such as luck or the simplicity of the task, while her failures are seen as a reflection of incompetence.3 Similarly, male leaders gain more perceived leadership ability when their company succeeds, but are also less likely to lose legitimacy when their company fails.4 

These and other implicit biases can further influence how women perceive themselves. For example, whereas men are socialized to be confident, assertive, and self-promoting, females are socialized to diminish and undervalue their professional skills and achievements.1 This reluctance to self-promote, despite the benefits, stems from concerns about the perceptions of others.5 For women, the adoption of agentic behaviors, such as self-promotion, can result in backlash.6 For example, an experimental study revealed that, even if they have the exact same profile, female politicians are more likely to be perceived as “power-seeking” than their male counterparts. Furthermore, her perceived “power-seeking” makes her less likely to garner votes.7 This can implicitly influence us to view women, in general, as less qualified for leadership roles than men.6 

Women are also prone to gender bias

However, here’s the interesting part. These biases are not only held by men; women are also prone to implicit biases against women. A recent study, for example, reported that the word “male” had a stronger implicit association with “brilliance” than “female,” for both men and women.8 In another experiment, male and female science faculty were equally likely to favor applications for a laboratory manager position that had been randomly assigned a male name, rating the applicant as more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant. On average, the application with the male name was offered a higher starting salary and more mentoring than the same application with a female name.9 

Implicit biases: The subordinate perspective

Implicit beliefs might bias women against female leaders. In an American Bar Association survey, a majority of female lawyers under 40 expressed a preference for male bosses.10 Another study reported that female subordinates had a greater negative bias towards female supervision than male subordinates.11 In 2016, a study by Artz and Taengnoi additionally found that in two U.S. datasets, female job satisfaction is lower under female supervision, while male job satisfaction is unaffected by the gender of the boss. The dispreference for female leadership is stronger when the leader is older, and when she adopts more “male-like” authoritarian leadership styles.11,12

These results are somewhat surprising given that social identity theory predicts that women, seeing themselves as belonging to the group of “women,” will want to help maintain their own positive social identity by having their group viewed favorably. In other words, another woman doing good makes us all look good, right? So, given this, why might women react with more hostility towards a successful female? 

One answer is derived from social comparison theory. This theory suggests that because women are more likely to identify with other women, when they see a successful woman, they view her as a threat. In other words, they compare themselves against her and, subsequently, feel bad about themselves, thus diminishing their own self-esteem. To reduce the ego-deflating consequences of comparing themselves to this successful woman, the subordinate might cast her as interpersonally hostile and unlikeable.13

Another possibility is that perhaps subordinates have expectations in line with their biases, which can lead to greater disappointment. For example, perhaps subordinates expect their female leaders to be more nurturing or empathetic than their male leaders. Thus, when the female leader doesn’t behave as expected, the subordinate might be more disappointed.10 Using the anecdote from above, did Yasmine expect her Chair to be extra empathetic, and when she wasn’t, feel disappointed in a way she never would have been had her Chair been a man?

Implicit biases: The leader perspective

Female leaders can also be biased against female subordinates. A workplace environment in which women are a minority in leadership can create competitive pressure in which they feel they have to prove themselves. This pressure was even greater a generation ago, when resources were less accessible to women than to men.14 A study by Buchanan et al. (2012) describes how women at the top might have been successful because they convinced men that they are not like other women. Relatedly, in order to assimilate into the male-dominated work environment, women may dissociate from their gender identity and distance themselves from other women. For example, consider this female U.S. Army officer’s experience with distancing from her female cohorts: 

I was the only woman in my unit for the longest time. To show the guys I was “cool,” I chewed tobacco, drove a truck, and power-lifted after work. All was well, until a second female joined the unit. You think I would feel some camaraderie. But for some reason, I had to make a point to show everyone that I was faster than her. Stronger than her. I just felt I had to highlight my “masculine” traits while downplaying her “girly” ones. She never did anything to me. In fact she looked up to me as someone who outranked her, and my first piece of advice to her was to put away her mascara and stop trying to entice the soldiers. She never scheduled another meeting with me again. Why did I feel like I had to make a point to be “different” than her?

Why might this woman have hesitated to support her subordinate? This experience illustrates what Belle Derks and colleagues (2016) refer to as the Queen Bee Phenomenon. Queen Bees make a point of distancing themselves from other women, but more specifically women who are their juniors. Successful female managers who went through the trials of navigating and rising through the ranks may feel that their juniors must similarly prove their worth, as comparatively they have not been tested in the same way.15,16 

Changing the dynamic

In a qualitative study of women who made it to the top of their academic medical career, a specific action recommended by these successful women was to find a good mentor or sponsor.17 Having women in leadership positions can also inspire other females.18 Of additional benefit: exposure to positive senior female role models may reduce the implicit biases that women may hold. For example, Young et al. (2013) found that when college women had a female professor they viewed as a role model, their implicit attitudes about women in science shifted; the exposure to a positive female leader made women automatically associate science with females more easily.19

Unfortunately, as we reviewed, building stronger female mentorship may not be so easy. First, in many fields, there is still a dearth of female leaders. A history of workplace inequality can create pressures for a leader to become a “Queen Bee,” or a subordinate to have a preference for male bosses. These pressures will likely dissipate as more women ascend into leadership positions. In the meantime, we encourage a renewed emphasis on mentorship between female professionals. In our next article, we will discuss ways for leaders and subordinates alike to overcome these barriers and change the dynamic of the mentor-mentee relationship.

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