Federal agencies want to find and hire the best possible talent. However, they may be going about it the wrong way. A recent study suggests that a focus on raw talent or brilliance may result in gender bias.
Published in Psychological Science, the report claims that a focus on “brilliance” creates a competitive, masculine workplace. Many women find such environments toxic and avoid them. As a result, the competitive focus might actually turn away some of the best potential workers.
Masculine workplaces and the gender gap
One of the study’s authors elaborated on its importance in The Conversation. As she notes, she and her colleagues began their research to learn why there are fewer women in certain fields that “prize raw intellectual talent.” The researchers surveyed 1,347 academics in more than 30 disciplines and an additional 870 lay people.
The results of their survey did more than reveal the roots of a gender gap. They also showed how that gender gap formed:
- The focus on raw intellectual talent or brilliance promotes a competitive culture
- The competitive culture encourages aggressive or masculine tendencies
- Workers respond to the aggression by acting tough, protecting themselves and exploiting others
- The negative culture discourages women who traditionally favor more collaborative environments
- When women learn about the negative, competitive environment, they are less likely to apply
Even when women enter these workplaces, the study found they were more likely to feel like “imposters.”
A possible solution
While the study focused primarily on academic and IT careers, it offers an eye-opening warning for any workplace too focused on getting the “best of the best.” The sort of gender bias it can encourage may not qualify as illegal discrimination, but it can easily backfire. Employers who promote too much competition may end up turning away some of their best candidates.
Fortunately, the study’s author also offered a solution. She noted that women were more likely to apply for a position if they heard the workplace featured a cooperative culture. Even if nothing else were different, women were more likely to apply if other workers described a workplace wherein colleagues supported each other and each other’s work.
Federal agencies should be mindful
There’s another reason federal agencies and other businesses should be wary of ultra-competitive workplaces. It’s possible for workers and managers to internalize the gender bias they see in their workplace. If few women choose to work in a job, managers may start to assume it’s because they cannot perform the work.
A focus on “brilliance” in the workplace may not be illegal, even if it promotes a gender gap. But certain actions that come out of that focus could be.