Why Fixing a Gender Imbalance Won’t Fix Gender Bias

An analysis of industries with more female than male workers — including the meetings industry — shows that gender inequities persist even when female employees are in the majority.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

CL2020 attendees listening session

A recent survey shows that in four industries where women outnumber men, women still are subject to a “multitude of biases.” Results from Convene’s Salary Survey 2020 suggest that, when it comes to leadership roles and pay, a similar outcome can be seen in the majority-female events industry. (Convening Leaders 2020 photo by Jacob Slaton Photography)

Achieving gender balance won’t automatically translate to an end to gender bias, concluded a study published March 2 in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), which looked at the experience of women in four industries that have greater numbers of female workers than male workers. Even though women outnumber men working in law, education, faith-based nonprofits, and health care, they still are subject to a “multitude of biases,” the study showed, ranging from a lack of acknowledgement of their contributions to workplace harassment. “Bias,” the study’s authors write, “is built into the system and continues to operate even when more women than men are present.”

The study “torpedoes the idea that simply loading an industry up with women is enough to eliminate the kind of bias that holds female workers back,” wrote Kristin Bell in The Broadsheet, a newsletter published by Fortune. And expecting an industry to be more egalitarian because women hold the majority of jobs in roles “that aren’t permitted to call the shots or set the cultural tone” misses the point, she added. “A majority-female industry is not the same thing as an industry with majority-female leadership, or even gender-balanced leadership.”

Bell cited the fact that women make up more than 85 percent of registered nurses, but most doctors and hospital leaders are still male. And while most paralegals are female, women account for only 23 percent of partners in U.S. law firms.

However, one need not look beyond our own industry for examples of how a majority-female industry can fail to yield gender-equal outcomes in measures including leadership roles and pay. In Convene’s Salary Survey 2020, conducted in the weeks before the pandemic, the average annual salary was $99,838 for male meeting professionals and $86,103 for female. And although only 13 percent of the survey respondents were male, compared with 87 percent female respondents, 36 percent of those who reported holding the position of vice president, with an average salary of $125,811, were male. On a lower end of the pay spectrum, 93 of those in the position of manager, where the average pay was $78,450, were female, compared with only 7 percent male.

There are gender-equitable practices that have been shown to create environments which reduce bias, the HBR survey’s authors write. Among their recommendations: Replace dominant, competitive-style leadership with cooperative and collaborative models; provide remote workers with flexibility and autonomy; and increase transparency around decision making to boost organizational performance.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.