‘Workplace Bias Reason Enough for Women to Drop out of Workforce’

In over two decades preceding 2013, female labour participation fell from 34.8% to 27%, a World Bank report said.

6 min read

As many men employed by engineering companies reported facing bias at the workplace, as did women employed in the same sector, a study conducted in 2018 to examine bias in India’s engineering workplace found. Women reported bias primarily based on gender, while men reported bias primarily based on where they came from (both their region and their language).

“We were surprised to find that women and men working in the engineering sector are equally facing biases at the workplace,” Joan Williams, distinguished professor of law, Hastings Foundation Chair, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California and lead author of the study, told IndiaSpend.

For instance, three in four male and female engineers working in India reported feeling the need to prove themselves over and over again to be seen as equally competent as their colleagues.

A similar number of women employed by engineering firms in the United States reported the same bias, compared to three in five white men, found a similar study published in 2016, also conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law and the Society of Women Engineers.

In conversation with IndiaSpend, Williams explained why workplace bias can be reason enough for women to drop out of the workforce, something India has seen happen on a large scale.

In over two decades preceding 2013, female labour force participation in India fell from 34.8 percent to 27 percent, according to an April 2017 World Bank report.

Workplace bias can also cause engineering companies to lose competent employees, whether men or women, Williams said, as she outlined a tool to help companies become more inclusive, something India’s highly divided society struggles with, and retain good workers in the process.

What inspired you to study workplace bias? Does workplace bias keep women out of the workforce? Is there hope for gender bias to decrease if men at the top of engineering companies aren’t gender neutral themselves?

I entered the workforce in the 1980s. About a decade ago, I realised that little had changed at the workplace. Women I was interacting with were facing similar kinds of biases as I had faced in the 1980s. For instance, women were still facing tightrope bias, meaning that they were being expected to conform to a certain behaviour pattern.

Typically, women are expected to be modest, self-effacing and less ambitious. Women who are go-getters can be seen as obnoxious. Women who are assertive are seen to have a personality problem. If women have children, they can additionally experience the maternal wall bias. Four in 10 engineers we interviewed reported bias against mothers in their workplaces.

Consider this comment made by a woman interviewee: “I never used to speak up so my manager used to take the credit. It felt bad. But when I started to speak up, it was seen as bossing around... For men, there is no conflict. While women are seen to be bossy, rude and assertive, males are right to behave like this.”


Any bias at the workplace is a put off. If a woman is financially comfortable, meaning she doesn’t have to work to earn a living, experiencing too much bias at the workplace could lead her to think her job isn’t worth it.

The challenge is eliminating gender bias, as it is widespread. It is a cultural thing.

The survey asked both men and women whether it is inappropriate for women to argue at work, even if it is business related. Among respondents, 45 percent of women said yes, while only 28 percent of men said yes. Essentially, it isn’t only the men at the top who feel that way. It is many male colleagues.

You say you were surprised at the number of men that reported facing unfair biases in India. Does this high admission of bias say something about the interviewees? Does it reflect a lack of confidence in the system? Could the participants’ responses have been exaggerated?

Social scientists have been documenting biases over 40 years through experimental studies, which use objective measures of bias. This latest study is built on that experimental research base with a survey that is based on participants’ perceptions.

Experimental studies involve, say, giving a recruiter two identical resumes, one of a man and one of a woman, and asking a recruiter to choose a candidate based on how competent the candidates appear. Or, giving the recruiter two resumes of two people of the same gender but coming from different regions.


Experimental studies are usually carefully conducted in psychology labs. In our perception-based study, we documented the same biases that researchers did in their experimental studies. So, it isn’t as if the men and women we interviewed are deluded about their workplace situation.

If the engineers we interviewed reported high workplace bias, it’s a signal to companies making up the engineering industry to get their workplaces in order.

Biases are expressed by individuals. Do the companies which employ those individuals suffer in any way for the expression of biases at the workplace?

Roughly three-quarters of the engineers we interviewed reported feeling the need to prove themselves over and over again to be seen as equally competent with their colleagues (Prove-It-Again bias), or the need to behave in a certain way, unlike the dominant group which gets away with non-conforming (Tightrope bias), or experiencing bias in assignments, bias in promotions, bias in compensation, or bias in sponsorship and mentoring programmes.

“To have three in four people report facing bias of any kind at the workplace is not acceptable. Actually, no bias is acceptable. The ideal situation is to have a fair, bias-free workplace.”

Workplace biases put certain groups of employees at a disadvantage, and the company suffers as well. Where biases prevail, employees of a certain gender or from a certain place or speaking a certain language are more likely to be hired or promoted.

Essentially, hires and promotions are based on artificial reasons. What’s best for the company is for the most competent person to be hired. If that doesn’t happen, of course the company loses out.

“We found a direct connection between the levels of bias reported by respondents and their feelings of inclusion at work, as well as their desire to stay or leave their organisation.”

For example, both the Prove-It-Again bias and the tightrope bias are linked to a decrease in career satisfaction, a decrease in enjoyment of work and an increase in considering looking for a new job elsewhere. So it could well be that workplace bias triggers employee turnover, which increases the cost of hiring, training and so on.


Can experiencing bias or expressing bias be addressed through any kind of training? What can help mitigate, if not eliminate bias at the workplace?

Evidence shows that one-time diversity trainings often do not work. Bias has its roots in social science. A gender bias, for instance, is a cultural issue. So, eliminating gender bias necessitates changing the culture of individuals and entire organisations. You cannot change culture through a single intervention. Research has shown that bias interrupters are an effective way to make systemic changes across the organisation.

Bias interrupters involve tweaking existing business systems and processes with the aim of interrupting bias before it happens. The starting point for this is to use surveys to find out if bias patterns are present in your workplace and how they are affecting everyday work interactions. Next, develop an objective metric to establish baselines.


For example, do performance evaluations in your company show consistently higher ratings for men than for women? If the answer is yes, implement a bias interrupter, such as making sure performance evaluation ratings are supported by objective evidence from the employee’s performance record. After putting a bias interrupter in place, return to your metric to assess success--and try something else if you have not yet met your goal.

Airbnb has been successfully implementing bias interrupters. In 2015, Airbnb increased the percentage of women on its data science team from 15 percent to 30 percent by making small adjustments in the hiring process, including taking names off resumes when judging objective tests given to candidates and ensuring that at least half of the members of interview panels were women.

(Charu Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. This article originally appeared on IndiaSpend, and has been republished with permission)

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