Smart men, helpful women

Hilde Christiane Bjørnland

New studies show surprisingly negative attitudes towards women in academia and business. This limits women from attaining top positions.

COMMENT: Hilde C. Bjørnland about economy

#Metoo and its focus on women who are sexually harassed by men with power, has characterised the news for a while.

There is another form of discrimination that, if not as oppressive, is quite interfering in a woman's everyday life: namely bad attitudes and the lack of recognition of women from men in traditionally male-dominated industries and workplaces.

It is an invisible type of discrimination, but one that can prevent women from aiming as high as men.

Subtle discrimination holds women back

Discrimination is present both in academia and in the business community internationally, and I dare to say, even in Norway.

Surveys and analysis based on individual interviews with female senior executives can give the impression that there is no such glass ceiling, that is, prejudices that prevent women from reaching the top.

Instead, this simple analysis confirm that female senior executives are super ambitious and that those who reach the top do so because they really wanted the management job. Hence, women who do not reach the top, are not as ambitious or willing to sacrifice what is required, compared to men.

Conclusion: Women must work even harder if they are to succeed.

Different assessment of women and men

The problem with this type of analysis is of course that it is based on a limited selection of women - who have all been successful. The analysis does not question women in non-management positions, if they really were less ambitious or if they did not want the job bad enough. But most importantly, they do not ask those who ultimately hire leaders if they acknowledge men and women equally.

They should. Several new international studies based on a completely different type of data set and tools than the use of simple surveys, discover major differences in the assessments of women and men. Let me mention three studies. Two are based on text analysis of online conversations, while the latter is based on an experiment.

Hostility towards women

The first ground breaking and widely discussed American study describes a working culture that can seem almost hostile towards women in parts of the economy sector. The study was conducted by Alice H. Wu, a master student at UC Berkeley, who will start her doctorate at Harvard this fall.

Wu uses so-called machine learning to analyse large amounts of text data from something called econjobrumors.com. This is a website where students, professors and others can write anonymous notes on named students. The database is used for recruitment into academia and business.

Through her analysis of millions of data, Wu managed to sort data and has documented highly negative and hostile attitudes towards female economics students, mostly provided by men.

Smart men and helpful women

The second example is an analysis based on the student's evaluation of lecturers. In the United States, there is something called "rate my professor", a publicly available website where students can write an assessment of the professors, like a verbal score.

Through the use of machine learning to classify millions of words, historian and computer analyst Benjamin Schmidt has made a tool to search words and to see to what extent they describe male and female lecturers equally.

For example, one can use the search word "smart", and see what proportion of male and female lecturers within for example, law or economics are described as such.

While men are overrepresented as funny, intelligent and smart, women are overrepresented as annoying, evil and frustrated. One comfort is that women score higher than men on the word helpful. But unfortunately, the word "helpful" does not increase a women’s chance of becoming a leader. On the contrary.

The above analysis comes with its limitations, for example, that you do not know whether men or women are overrepresented in the selection.

Women evaluated better when they believe it is a man

The third example does not have that limitation. The analysis, conducted by sociologists at the University of North Carolina, is based on a controlled experiment, allowing students who attend online courses to evaluate teachers.

The results show that the students provide much better evaluations of male teachers, although the men in this case are actually women. The students do not know this; they have only been given a fictional name of the teacher as they chat online with the woman they think is a man.

Attitudes towards women must change

The fact that women are underrepresented as senior executives in business and universities in the United States is a long known fact. The trend in Norway may be better: the proportion of female leaders has increased somewhat, but mainly in the public sector.

In private industry and academia there is still a lack of female senior executives, and the proportion of female professors in male-dominated professions such as economics and finance has remained the same or is declining.

The reasons this is so is of course many. But I think without addressing the negative attitudes and lack of recognition of women, this will not change.

One can hope that some of these attitudes will be washed away in the wake of the #Metoo campaign.

The article was first published as a commentary on economy in Dagens Næringsliv January 4th 2018.

Published 11. January 2018

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