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Subtle Gender Bias Towards Women Leaders: A Six-Factor Model

Tue, June 18, 10:30am to 12:00pm, 1440 Multiversity, Outlook 203

Short Description

What are the specific aspects of subtle gender bias towards women leaders? In 2016, Diehl and Dzubinski developed a framework of 27 gender-based leadership barriers which was used to create the Subtle Bias Towards Women Leaders (SuBTLe) Scale. Confirmatory factor analysis on the SuBTLe Scale revealed the six factors that form the roots of this bias. Join this presentation to discover the six factors and how they impacted survey participants.

Detailed Abstract

Problem, Need, Significance
It is well documented that women in leadership positions face a multitude of obstacles merely because they are women (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011; Fletcher, 2001; Haveman & Beresford, 2012; Joshi, Neely, Emrich, Griffiths, & George, 2015; Rhode & Kellerman, 2007; Williams, 2001). Recent scholarship has evolved from exploring deliberate prejudice to examining more subtle types of gender discrimination (see Diehl & Dzubinski, 2016; Jones, Peddie, Gilrane, King, & Gray, 2016; Meyerson & Fletcher, 2003). Despite the recent increase in attention to issues of subtle gender bias, no studies to date have attempted to create and validate a mechanism of quantitatively capturing the lived experience of these barriers.

Second-generation gender bias, or subtle bias, is considered by many to be the primary challenge hindering women’s opportunities in organizational leadership (Ely et al., 2011; Jones et al., 2016). Whereas overt discrimination is likely to be conscious and unlawful, subtle bias manifests through “negative or ambivalent demeanor and/or treatment enacted toward social minorities on the basis of their minority status membership that are not necessarily conscious and likely convey ambiguous intent” (Jones et al., 2016, p. 1591). Subtle gender bias involves barriers which arise “from cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men” (Ely et al., 2011, p. 475). In effect, subtle bias is present in virtually all organizations. And because subtle bias is typically unconscious (Jones et al., 2016), stemming from cultural assumptions, it can be particularly pernicious.

Diehl and Dzubinski (2016) created a comprehensive framework of the barriers contributing to subtle gender bias of women in leadership. This framework includes 27 gender-based barriers which differentially prevent women from succeeding or advancing in leadership. While this barrier model is comprehensive, it is also relatively complex. Scale development will be useful to both measure this bias and to reduce the complexity of the barrier model, to aid in clarity and to identify constructs which undergird the roots of this bias.

Questions & Content
The goal of this research is to create a validated instrument which can be used to assess the degree to which subtle gender bias affects women leaders, to refine the factor structure underlying the bias and to better understand how bias manifests in the lived experiences of women leaders.

To develop the Subtle Bias Towards Women Leaders (SuBTLe) Scale, we followed Hinkin’s (1995, 1998) measurement development procedures in an effort to ensure reliability and validity of the instrument. Based on examples and definitions of Diehl and Dzubinski’s (2016) 27 gender-based barriers, three of the four researchers individually generated potential survey questions. Then, we reduced the number of items by eliminating questions due to reasons of ambiguity, poor statement structure or those that inadvertently captured multiple barriers. Next, a panel of experts externally validated the list, and we then pilot tested the instrument.

Next, we sent the scale to three different industry samples of women leaders (e.g. higher education, faith-based organizations, and physicians). The purpose of this phase was to determine the dimensionality of the factor structure. With the 1,079 participant responses, we employed exploratory factor analysis to identify the appropriate number of factors to retain. Results from exploratory factor analysis suggested that the model should be streamlined from the originally proposed 27 barriers (Diehl & Dzubinski, 2016) down to 15 which were further tested using confirmatory factor analysis.

To validate the instrument, we sent the scale to women attorneys; 527 completed the questionnaire. We then conducted hierarchical confirmatory factor analysis to determine the final factor structure, which was well-support by the data.

We also presented open-ended questions to all participants to gather information on additional barriers not captured by scale questions, to gather information on other types of bias the women had experienced, and to allow participants to clarify their responses.

Results, Findings, Outcomes

Results from both exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis on the SuBTLe Scale supported a factor structure consisting of 6 higher-order and 15 lower-order factors of subtle gender bias.
The open-ended survey questions revealed examples of how specific aspects of bias manifested for the women. For example, many women dealt with devaluation (higher-order factor) such as salary inequality (lower-order factor). As one physician stated, “Because my superiors knew I had a partner with a ‘real’ job, I was treated for years like my working was a luxury and that I could afford to work for less pay than someone else.” Others faced hostility (higher-order factor) in the form of workplace harassment (lower-order factor). One lawyer lost her job because:

This bully male attorney took over and tried to dominate by verbally abusing the women attorneys. Everyone just took it. But I couldn't just take it. So I got fired which is now an unfortunate lesson for the other women in the office.

Participants provided real life examples of all factors through their responses to the open-ended questions.

Diehl and Dzubinski’s (2016) gender-based leadership barriers framework provided a robust starting point to develop a survey instrument to assess the extent to which subtle gender bias affects women. The resulting six-factor structure provides an easy way to conceptualize this bias. Respondents to open-ended survey questions provided many examples which aid our understanding of how the bias manifests in the lived experiences of women leaders.

This study advances understanding of subtle gender bias in three ways. First, we offer a validated, comprehensive instrument that measures how women leaders are affected by subtle gender bias. Second, the current scale was developed in such a way that it affords specificity across the integrated aspects of subtle gender bias. By affording specificity, organizational leadership will be able to identify the types of bias present within their organization and apply resources accordingly. Third, the present research contributes to the literature by providing a more textured understanding of subtle gender bias. Having a more nuanced understanding of these associations holds significant potential for targeted intervention activities and leadership development opportunities designed to spur cultural and structural change.


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