Understanding Bias & Double Standards for Women

Understanding Bias & Double Standards for Women | Jennifer Spoelma

Both bias and double standards have a negative effect because they make things unfair. Whether it's selection for a promotion, choosing a teammate in gym class or being evaluated for a presentation, bias and double standards are likely influencing the outcome of the decision.

The negative forms of bias and double standards are easier to spot. Women and other minorities are familiar with facing these. But the important thing to remember about bias and double standards is that they usually aren't intentional. They occur at a subconscious level which makes them difficult to curb and frustrating to deal with.

However, I was intrigued this past week to learn that there are some situations in the workplace that lend women an advantage and positive bias compared to men.

Are you intrigued too? I'm excited to share more about those findings with you! There are some good nuggets we can take away.

Before we get into that study, let's' get on the same page about what we mean when we use the words 'bias' and 'double standards'.


  • A tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.

Double Standard:

  • A set of principles that applies differently and usually more rigorously to one group of people or circumstances than to another; especially: a code of morals that applies more severe standards of sexual behavior to women than to men.

Most of us can call out these attitudes and judgements when we see them. But since we'll be considering a research study, it's also good to know how they are measured scientifically.

*This information is also very helpful for being able to articulate the specifics of bias or double-standard behavior you may experience. That is a very important skill!

Obviously, no one wants to be labeled as bias. This makes measuring bias a complex undertaking.

One way bias against female managers has been measured is by asking participants to rate how much they agree or disagree with statements like those below:

  • Recognition for a job well done is less important to women as it is to men.
  • Women can be aggressive in business situations that demand it.
  • Women tend to allow their emotions to influence their managerial behavior more than men.
  • It is acceptable for women to assume leadership roles as often as men.

Are you surprised by your initial reactions to these statements?

A study conducted by Ashleigh Rosette and Leigh Tost, researchers at Duke University, studied bias in a different way. They created a fictitious bio for a CEO, and the success the imagined company had seen over the past year. The CEO had no mentioned gender, and remained nameless.

Rosette and Tost then had 176 participants read this bio and determine whether they thought the CEO was a male or female. 96% of the participants assumed that the fictitious CEO was a man. Can you believe that?! I expected a trend towards men, but 96% is overwhelming.

What the researchers did next is interesting. They rewrote the bio twice. Once giving the CEO a male identity, and the other time with a female identity. Then they called in two new pools of participants.

One group received the male bio, while the other read the female bio. After reading, both groups were asked to rate the fictitious CEOs on a series of leadership related qualities. The qualities were a mix of both agentic and communal characteristics.

Agentic characteristics were measured by questions like, “I think the CEO is skillful.” And communal characteristics were measured by questions such as, “I think the CEO is friendly.”

We've talked about agentic and communal qualities previously: both are important to effective leadership.

Historically, agentic behaviors have been associated with masculinity and have been the more desired in leadership positions. On the other hand, communal qualities are more heavily associated with females, but are very important in our current trend towards servant/transformational leadership.

What they discovered is that the female CEOs received higher scores across the board. Regarding both the agentic and communal qualities, women were rated as stronger leaders!

The understanding of these findings is people perceive that for the women to have reached the CEO level, they must have had to overcome more barriers, making them more competent leaders compared to a male counterpart.

I like this study because it is an alternate vantage point from what most of us deal with or are experiencing. It's encouraging to know that at the top, there is strong potential for respect and trust in female leaders.

Rosette & Tost's study also looked to see if the patterns they saw were true for women at mid-manager levels of the company. The recreated a very similar structure, but this time the bio talked about how the manager (male or female) led their team, not an entire company.

They found that there was no positive effect for women at the mid-management level. So for those of us who aren't at the top of an organization, what does this mean?

It means that we should still expect to face bias, but don't let that reality harden you. Rather, do what you can to educate yourself so that you can voice your concerns when needed. There are some tips on that below!

Ultimately, leadership is about the impact and influence you make. You can continue to lead with dignity, power and purpose no matter what others expect of you. Don't forget that.

What do we do next?

  1. Learn to identify and name the biases you see at play in your circles. Take note of what makes you uncomfortable, and take a wider view of the situation. What is the impact of the bias behavior you witness?
  2. Speak up to humanize stereotyped demographics. Practice ways you can shed light on social issues and opinions by using your personal story or vantage point. Respond to people’s ignorance with grace, and invite them to see your perspective and how their views/actions are hurting you.
  3. Take credit when it’s earned. One of the things that Rosette & Tost’s study found was that the positive bias towards women was only granted when credit for their company’s growth was explicitly given to them. If taking credit feels uncomfortable or unnatural to you, spend some time creating a list of go-to phrases you can use like, “Thank you for supporting me in this project,” that reinforce your leadership without being pushy.

What stereotypes do you notice most frequently? What do you do to humanize them?

Thanks for being part of the journey with me.

Warmly, Jennifer Spoelma

Works Cited: Rosette, A. S., & Tost, L. P. (2010). Agentic Women and Communal Leadership: How Role Prescriptions Confer Advantage to Top Women Leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 221-235. doi:10.1037/a0018204