Here’s a hypothetical scenario: You’re a guy, you’ve recently graduated from a top MBA program, and you’ve landed a job at the consulting firm of your choice. After a stressful day, you decide to invite some of your buddies at work for drinks at a nearby bar—and you don’t invite any of the women in your office.
That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, this is an afterwork thing, right? “We just like people who are like us—we’re just comfortable,” says Victoria L. Brescoll, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management who has researched stereotypes in the workplace extensively. But those afterwork social events are important, because they lead to connections that turn into huge career boosters. So something as simple as inviting women to join the group? “That actually is hugely powerful,” Brescoll says.
SEXISM VERSUS GENDER BIAS
There’s no doubting that in the workplace, women have it better than ever before. Blatant, Mad Men-style sexism is mostly gone; when Brescoll asks study participants to rate their levels of sexism on questionnaires, “nobody endorses that stuff,” she says. “They don’t really buy it at all.”
But there’s a long way to go, especially when it comes to leadership. In 2013, just 14.6% of Fortune 500 executive officers were female, and women held just 16.9% of Fortune 500 board seats. Plus, gender bias—treating or thinking about men and women differently because of gender—has stubbornly stuck around. “I’m consistently surprised when I have people do my studies,” Brescoll says. Sometimes, she still has a hard time believing that people react differently to men and women displaying anger. (One of her studies found that people reward men who get angry and see women who get angry as incompetent.)
Plenty of advice out there helps women deal with workplace gender bias. But what about the men? Whether or not men perpetrate it, and whether or not they do it knowingly or unknowingly, they have the ability to influence workplace dynamics in a way that would improve the lives of their female coworkers. Brescoll notes that it’s not just about being a good guy and doing the right thing. Obviously, women have the most incentive for getting rid of gender bias because they’re the ones who are immediately affected, but there’s a business case for getting rid of it, too. “Smart leaders know this,” Brescoll says. After all, why would you want your employees to feel anything less than supported?