How Men See Women Differently and Put Them Down At Work

55-year old Tom Cruise with 33-year old Sarah Wright

I’m a man, yet I’d like to think I see beyond gender, especially at work. Moreover, I have females in my family, so I’m “incentivised” to be fair. I’m sure many of the men recently engulfed in sexual harassment and abuse scandals form Harvey Weinstein to Roger Ailes probably told themselves that too. So, am I really as “unbiased” as I think I am? 

One reason for men like me to be concerned is that potentially 85% of women report being harassed. This suggests that there is something institutional or societal about the mistreatment of women. Certainly, when one looks at the decision-makers at the top of big companies and political parties are heavily tilted to men. This in turn could lead to an association of men with having high status and by extension women with having low status.

This dynamic is further projected on the big screen. Take Tom Cruise, when he first burst on the movie scene in the 1980s, his female co-stars were roughly the same age as him (he was in his twenties). In the 1990s, the age gap widened to four years, in the 2000s, it widened even further to 12 years and this decade it was widened to a whopping 18 years. His most recent movie “American Made” saw the 55-year old Cruise star opposite the 33-year old Sarah Wright. It would seem that youth and looks take primacy for women, while male actors can be valued for qualities other than just their appearance.

It’s not just Tom Cruise movies that exhibit this bias, a recent quantitative study of movie scripts showed that movies consistently show men as having more authority and control over their destinies. This is true for classic movies like Star Wars, The Matrix and The Dark Knight. It is even the case with supposedly female centric-movies such as Lost In Translation, Black Swan and Avatar.

Surely this type of reinforcement of gender roles would seep into work, and study after study shows that it does. Indeed, most studies find that men tend to hold women back at work in the following four ways:

1) Get women to “Prove-It-Again”. When it comes to promotions, men ask women to demonstrate what achievements and skills they have to get the promotion. Meanwhile when it comes to other men, they focus on the man’s potential  not past achievements. This allows men to move up the corporate ladder faster as they don’t need to prove themselves again like women.

2) Force women to walk “the Tightrope”. Men tend to see women either as doormats (feminine, soft) or ice queens (masculine, hard). If a man has “soft” traits he’s seen as charming, while if he has “hard” traits, he’s seen as being a leader. Women therefore have to balance on a tight-rope of being neither too feminine (soft) nor too masculine (cold), unlike men.

3) Assume there is no “Tug of War” amongst women. Men tend to lump all women together as being part of the “sisterhood”. They assume all women will look out for each other. Yet men don’t assume the same for other men and are careful who they align themselves with or others with. For women, they ignore the possibility that a woman may not be the best match for (say) managing or mentoring another woman. This short-sightedness creates additional obstacles for women.

4) Think that women will hit “the Maternal Wall”. Men can’t help, but  assume that women will lose ambition after having a child. Meanwhile, they, men, will no way lose their ambition after having a child. The question doesn’t even arise. This mind-set puts women on the “mummy career track”, that is, a dead-end.

So how can we, men, overcome these biases. Don’t make women do office “house work” or “support work” (taking minutes, organising meetings, getting tea), help women access our internal and external networks; don’t let other men drown out the voice of women in meetings (and other forums), promote and advertise the accomplishments of women; and don’t dismiss the emotions expressed by women.