A female employee is as half as likely as her male colleague to hold a position of authority. Despite the growing focus on this issue over the last three decades, a substantial gender imbalance, specifically women in leadership, remains in sectors such as technology and engineering, in comparison to sectors like health and life sciences. The shortage of women in authority positions is more than a number — it has tangible, real-life effects. Within the technology sector, research has already called attention to the poor understanding of the sweeping consequences that gender imbalance has. For example, certain voice assistants have been found incapable of efficiently responding to requests regarding sexual assault or other crises that predominantly affect women. It has been argued that this neglect of women’s needs in product development is exacerbated by the male-centered nature of the sector.
The so-called authority gap is not merely a salient dimension on its own, but it is also tightly linked to other gender inequalities observed in the workplace including the gender pay gap. According to an analysis by Redfin and PayScale — the gender pay gap is halved at companies with more female executives. Further, having more gender diversity in corporate leadership roles contributes to improved skill diversity in upper management and less gender discrimination throughout the organization, it also helps to attract top talent and ultimately boosts revenue too. Because the authority gap is not explained by better qualifications among men, researchers have suggested that it is a continued cultural regard of men as more competent and status-worthy that broadens the gap. In other words: women are as effective leaders as men, it is “just” that they are taken far less seriously. What’s more, the gap was found to vary across authority roles. Roles with control over organizational resources have the largest gap while the authority roles with control over human resources have the smallest authority gap.
To grasp this, we must get acquainted with the unconscious. Our unconscious, whilst vast and important, is fallible and biased. The associations we hold outside our conscious awareness can result in unconscious bias — unsupported judgment in favour of or against a person, a group, or a thing. These associations are meant to be helpful and allow us to navigate information overload. However, they can also have an ill and lasting effect on who we hire, who we promote, or whose authority we trust more. We all have various unconscious biases, and — even if we theoretically believe in absolute equality — it is still probable that we unconsciously accord more authority to men than women. Knowing we have unconscious biases does not mean we are bad, but that we are more self-aware.
So, what can you do in your life to address this?
Check and challenge yourself. Do you interrupt women more often than men? Do you listen to women less attentively than you listen to men? Unconscious bias is particularly dangerous when it spills into our behaviour. To tackle unconscious bias when making a decision, intentionally slow down and reconsider whether the reasoning behind your decision-making is sound. It is your responsibility to challenge the associations you hold and recognise the potentially faulty decisions before harm to another human is made.
And what can you do at your work?
Mary Ann Sieghart — a journalist who coined the term “authority gap” — suggests that it is up to those in authority positions to take a stand against the flawed learnings that are deep-seated in our unconscious. Instead of merely witnessing women at work being talked over and having their views dismissed or expertise challenged, we should seek to actively redefine the masculine authority ideal and support women in authority positions. Acknowledging, encouraging and championing female authority is the way to bridge the authority gap at work.