Women in STEM Careers Face Bias

Women are excluded from promotions when firms look at potential, rather than proof, says Dr. Nishtha Langer, an associate professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Promotions are an accepted way for firms to attract and retain talent. In an ideal world, promotion for employees would be purely merit-oriented, and thus, performance – or potential for performance – would be a firm’s most important criteria for career advancement. But, according to Dr. Langer, we don’t live in this idyllic world – we live in a world where women are evaluated differently than men, and often endure biases in the work environment that men don’t face.

Dr. Langer believes that several factors contribute to such deleterious workplace practices.

Promotions rely less on absolute merit and more on relative merit. Thus, prejudiced ideas of potential capabilities, for instance, those relying on gender-role orientation – or the ability of a woman to do what may be perceived to be a masculine task – may prevent senior managers responsible for promotions from realizing the potential of their female colleagues. Women in STEM or technology often suffer from this bias. This prejudice may further bias how women are evaluated. Especially in those jobs where women are a minority, the in-group versus out-group biases would affect the visibility of women vis-à-vis men for promotions.

Another factor that may inhibit women from being promoted on the basis of potential – or even indeed with proof – is what researchers term the compensatory stereotype. If men succeed, it is because of their abilities; if women succeed, it is because of factors other than their abilities. Unfortunately, the potential or abilities of women are misattributed to luck or team factors, inhibiting them from the starting line. 

Finally, promotions are a way for firms to ensure valuable talent does not leave. In that sense, managers may be less sensitive to women’s outside prospects and may thus ignore their potential and choose to not promote them. They do so at their peril and fail to take advantage of the multitude of abilities women bring to the table.

Dr. Langer, an authority in the field of business and the societal value of IT and IT human capital, has long focused her research on women in technology careers. She is available to speak to this and other concerns about equality in the workplace.