Even women are biased against women in the workplace

It’s not just men who are sexist — women are too!

I want you to imagine a scenario…

A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”

How is this possible?

The surgeon is the boy’s mother. 40-75% of people can’t solve this riddle because they’re unable to imagine the surgeon is a woman.

Here’s another one. Take a second and close your eyes.

Imagine you are on a plane, a terrorist jumps up running through the plane and opens the door to the cockpit, the pilot turns around…

Open your eyes. What gender was the pilot?

Of course, you said a man. Everyone does.

It’s not just men who perpetuate these myths and biases. They are deeply ingrained in all of us whatever our gender. There’s a test for unconscious bias, known as the Implicit Association Test, and it’s consistently found that women, even staunch feminists and career women, are biased against working women.

Numerous studies show this to be the case, including a study by researchers at Yale. They sent job applications for a lab manager post to male and female science professors. The applications were identical, except that half were given a man’s name and the other half a woman’s. The professors – both male and female – said that the man’s application was better, that they were more likely to hire him and more likely to mentor him. And they offered him a substantially higher salary. A similar study was reported by the BBC about an author who had been rejected by 50 publishers, so she decided to send the same manuscript to the same people, but under a man’s name and this time 17 replied positively, many of those offering advice and mentoring.

The Queen bee syndrome

Many of my clients have experienced what’s called the Queen Bee syndrome. Coined in 1973 this describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates and peers more critically if they are female.  This phenomenon has been documented by several studies where women are seen to be bullied more by their female counterparts and line managers. Indeed, many women in leadership positions tell me rather sheepishly that they prefer working for and with men.

So where does this bias come from?

It comes from far back in our evolution, when we were learning to distinguish friend from foe. Our unconscious brain has hugely more processing power than our conscious brain, and it’s always devising shortcuts, known as heuristics. Women, like men, internalise the misogynistic cultural conditioning as a short cut to understanding and getting on in the world. Our society is filled disproportionately with men in top positions, so we instinctively associate “male” with “leader”, “success” and “competence” and “female” with “home”, “children” and “family”. This overrides any natural bias women might have towards their own kind. These unconscious biases are not hardwired into our brains as an evolutionary response. They emerge from assimilating information that we see around us. So the good news it that we should be able to change them. So, think now and reflect on your attitude to other women at work. Really challenge yourself about when you are biased against other women:

  • Maybe you hold your female direct reports to a higher standard than their male counterparts
  • Maybe you prefer working for a male boss
  • Maybe you assume that you can have more direct conversations with men because they will “handle it” better

If you really can’t think of any examples for yourself, then think of when other women have undermined you or you have been treated more harshly by female colleagues or managers.

This subject of unconscious gender bias I cover in my online course How to Succeed as a Woman at Work – practical ideas to overcome bias, build confidence & get ahead

The course looks at many other topics and is aimed at helping female workers, managers and female leaders get the most from their careers.


Marie Willis, tutor and co-founder of Unchainyourbrain.org

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