How Does Gender Inequality Persist?

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How Does Gender Inequality Persist?

And Can We Predict its Emergence in Silicon Valley?

by Susan Fisk on Monday, May 2, 2011 - 3:00am

Gender inequality continues to exist in advanced industrial societies, such as the US, despite a plethora of changes that work against gender discrimination. These countervailing forces include economic rationality, changes to the legal system, progressive politics, and even women’s own efforts to achieve equal opportunities. This puzzle is especially confounding in Silicon Valley, as it is precisely the type of place that should embody gender equality. It is a world of innovative companies that are so new that they cannot have a long, institutionalized history of gender bias.

Persistence of gender inequalityStanford professor Cecilia Ridgeway takes this conundrum one step further. In a talk sponsored by the Clayman Institute, she explains why gender inequality continues in the modern world, and asks if we can predict which type of Silicon Valley start-up would face the greatest persistence of gender inequality in comparison to traditional, hierarchical firms. In her recently published book, Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World, Ridgeway develops the concept of the Gender Frame. The Gender Frame is our automatic sex categorization of others that influences our behavior, and she argues that we use it to organize our interactions with others, but that its use can inadvertently create inequality.

The Gender Frame and Gender Stereotypes

There is a coordination problem in social relations; namely, for interactions between individuals to proceed smoothly, they must be able to synchronize their behavior. In US society, there are many shared category systems used to create “common knowledge.” However, according to Ridgeway, these categories, “…must be so simplified that they can be quickly applied as framing devices to virtually anyone to start the process of defining self and other in the situation.” If you meet an unfamiliar person, you will, “automatically and instantly,” categorize them, and your interaction will proceed with this information in mind. In the US, the basic “primary” cultural categories include sex, race, and age.

Research shows that sex categorization unconsciously primes gender stereotypes. This allows the stereotypes to become cognitively available to affect our behavior and judgments, “…but the extent to which they actually do shape our behavior can vary from negligible, you couldn’t measure it, to substantial depending on the nature of the particular situation and our own motives and interests in it.” This is because stereotypes about women and men depend the subject matter, as stereotypes are task-specific.

In general, men are believed to be especially more competent than women in male-typed settings (e.g. engineering, sports) and positions of authority, while women are advantaged in female-typed settings (e.g. childcare, communication). In mixed sex, gender neutral settings, men are believed to be modestly and diffusely more competent. Even though these beliefs are based are based on the “average” woman and the “average” man, they become the “default rules” for coordinating behavior. So if equally qualified applicants apply for a male-typed job, such as a computer engineer, male applicants will be advantaged relative to female applicants. But if two equally qualified applicants apply to a female-typed job, such as a nanny, the woman would be more likely to receive the job offer.

The Gender Frame as a Mechanism for Persistence

“Since these beliefs oftentimes lag behind the actual social realities, they perpetuate gender inequality” adds Ridgeway. “These lagging beliefs are especially likely to impact social and technological sites of innovation, as these sites are generally small, interpersonally organized, and have few institutional schemas to guide behavior. She states that this, “…increases the likelihood that participants unconsciously fall back on the gender frame to help organize their uncertain setting.”

To demonstrate that the gender frame contributes to the persistence of inequality, “We need evidence not merely that inequality persists at these sites, because it could be caused by anything there, but that it takes the form that we would expect if it were the result of the gender frame.”


Gender Equality in Start-ups versus Traditional Firms

To test the Gender Frame, Ridgeway contrasts biotech and IT start-ups that utilize flexible work arrangements with firms that have more traditional hierarchies. Ridgeway compares biotech and information tech (IT) start-ups in Silicon Valley with their more traditional counterparts. Unlike many organizations, these particular start-ups organize work in terms of project teams that have a relatively flat management structure. Unlike traditional organizations, start-ups utilize a network form in which work is organized in project teams, as opposed to more traditional hierarchies. This allows scientists to move flexibly between project teams, with a relatively flat management structure. Does this flexible structure benefit women? And does it benefit women more in some sectors than others?

Gender equality in STEM

Photo by George Joch / courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

Despite having the same organizational form, Ridgeway’s gender frame argument predicts that women will fare better in the biotech than the IT start-ups in comparison to traditional firms, due to the differences in the gender stereotypes that surround these fields.

Ridgeway argues that the life sciences are no longer strongly sex typed in US; indeed, half of biology PhD students are women. And while there are still gendered beliefs about ability in biology, but they are only modestly biased against women. For this reason, Ridgeway argues that women in these biotech start-ups are able to take full advantage of the flexible network structure, as they are perceived as credible by their fellow co-workers. And indeed, her prediction holds true: women do better in these biotech startups than in traditional biotech firms (as measured by their number of patents).

However, in the IT industry, there are more doubts about the ability of women as, “engineering and the physical sciences are still strongly sex-typed in favor of men.” As such, “…the background gender frame is more powerfully present and relevant which creates stronger implicit biases against women's competence.” For this reason, the flexibility and informal-ness does not provide the same benefit to women in IT start-ups as it does to the women in biotech. Indeed, it may even prove to be a disadvantage. Thus, the gender frame predicts that women will fare poorer in these IT start-ups than in traditional firms. And indeed, women in these firms do the same or worse than women in traditional firms (again, as measured by their number of patents).

This provides strong evidence for the claim that despite innovation in organizational forms, our use of the gender frame is a source of persistence of inequality in the workspace. Moreover, “gender effects in start-ups work with the organizational logic of the firms to shape the workplace practices, the daily routines, and the procedures that come to define work in that firm.” These practices become part of the organizational culture. These effects can spread to other firms too, as employees who leave to join other firms implicitly transfer the gendered practices and routines.

For these reasons, Ridgeway thinks that achieving gender equality is likely to be a bumpy and uncertain ride. However, she believes that, “This persistence dynamic does not mean that inequality cannot be overcome, but it does mean that it will not automatically be overcome.”


Susan Fisk is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at Stanford.  She is part of the Clayman Institute student writing team, reporting on gender topics at Stanford.