Interview With Caryl Rivers: Beware Subtle Bias

By Kellye Whitney

Mar. 9, 2014

It looks like the old, more traditional type of in-your-face discrimination has been replaced with a stealth version. According to Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University and co-author of “The New Soft War on Women,”bias has gone underground. To ensure fair and equitable treatment between the sexes, managers may need to be trained to spot more subtle forms of discrimination. Workforcetalked to Rivers about stealth discrimination.

Workforce: What exactly is the soft war on women?Caryl Rivers

Caryl Rivers: It’s very subtle. Women often trip over it because they don’t understand it’s there. For example, there’s what we call no credit where credit is due. When men and women work together on a team, the credit automatically goes to the man. We interviewed women around the country who said even when they did the lion’s share of the work, often the guy would get promoted, and they would not, and that’s endemic.

WF: What can managers do to combat this type of discrimination?

Rivers: Managers have to be aware of these subtle things. For example, research shows that men who are confident are automatically thought to be likable. Women who are confident are thought to be bitches, and that happens with men and women. Sheryl Sandberg says that this is probably one of the biggest impediments for women as they try to go up the ladder. For example, at Facebook, Sandberg said a woman was evaluated as being too aggressive. Instead of just putting that in the report, the manager went back to the people and asked, ‘If this was a man would you say he was too aggressive?’ They said, ‘Gee, no, we wouldn’t.’ So that report didn’t go into her file. … We have to have more training for managers about this new discrimination. Until you change that corporate culture, these kinds of things are going to keep on happening.

WF: In your book you talk about how women are often judged on performance and men on potential. Really?

Rivers: When men change jobs they usually get a raise or a higher position because they’re being judged on, ‘Oh, you can do something great for our company.’ When women change jobs, even if they’ve been stellar, they start at square one. We heard a number of women say they thought they were going to get promoted but didn’t. They asked the boss why, and they said, ‘Well, this guy reminded me of me when I was his age.’ People have this tendency to hire people like them. We have to talk about this issue and get people to understand it. The new discrimination isn’t as easy to attack with legislation or anti-discrimination policies. What do you do if the boss thinks you’re a bitch? It’s much harder to deal with. You can’t sue him, but if upper management gets behind the issues of this new discrimination and says, ‘Keep an eye out for it,’ that’s what’s going to change it.

Kellye Whitney is Workforce's associate editorial director. Comment below or email Follow Whitney on Twitter at @kellyewhit.

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce.

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