Skip to content Skip to navigation

Leveling the Playing Field

Apr 11 2013

Since the 1970s, the percentage of women musicians in orchestras has risen from 5 percent to 25 percent. What changed?  Did orchestras begin aggressively recruiting women?  Did more women start studying music?  Did sexist audition evaluators retire?  Turns out it was as simple as auditioning musicians behind privacy screens. From behind such barriers, judges now evaluate musicians without knowing their gender. The result—candidates are judged more fairly and more women now make the cut.     

“We can probably assume that the judges wanted to hire the best musician possible,” says Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll. “Yet, gender affected how they saw the quality of men and women’s performances.”

Correll discusses the orchestra case study in an online video titled, "Creating a Level Playing Field," part of the Clayman Institute's Voice & Influence program. The orchestra example illustrates how gender stereotypes introduce biases into the workplace. Correll argues that gender stereotypes unconsciously bias evaluations in ways that are often male advantaging. However, “with proper procedures in place and with appropriate effort, we can reduce and even eliminate these biases.”

"If we are going to craft solutions," says Correll, "that actually level the playing field, it's first important to understand how stereotypes produce the disadvantaging effects that they do." Once we understand the process, there are specific things that individuals and employers can do to reduce the effect of gender bias.

The goal, says Correll, should be to “create a workplace where all people, men and women, can thrive."  

Stereotypes, shortcuts, and bad decisions

Correll explains that gender stereotypes function as ‘cognitive shortcuts’ in information processing.  "If you’re in a situation where you have a lot of information that you have to evaluate," says Correll, "it’s natural to look for shortcuts to take in navigating all that information."

According to Correll, these shortcuts often include our implicit use of what we think we know about categories of people in order to judge individual men and women.  Put simply, we use stereotypes.

Stereotypes, says Correll, lead to errors in decision making. Instead of helping us make good decisions, stereotypes lead us to make decisions that favor certain types of people – and disadvantage others. In the case of orchestras, one can assume that the evaluators wanted to make the best choice, yet stereotypes about musicians led decision makers to pick predominately male musicians.

Researchers also find that our standards for evaluation shift depending on whether we are evaluating a man or a woman. 

Why would this be? Let’s imagine that we run across a woman who is very good at math. This is surprising: it runs counter to the stereotype that women are poor at math, causing us to more carefully scrutinize her to make sense of the situation. But when men do well, it confirms our stereotypes, so there is no need to take that second look.

Correll explains that in one research study, participants rated two applications for police chief. Although the candidates were similatly qualified, one had more education while the other had more experience.

When no names were attached to the applications, participants overwhelmingly preferred the applicant with more education. However, when male and female names were attached to the applications, participants overwhelmingly preferred the application with the male name, even when he had less education.

“Stereotypes led to a shifting of the very criteria that was deemed important,” Correll explains. Because stereotypes led participants to expect to see a male in the role of police chief, they unconsciously shifted their evaluation criteria—favoring either education or experience—in order to justify hiring the male candidate.

The increased scrutiny of women continues even once women and men are on the job.  Research consistently finds that women have less influence in group settings, their contributions are judged less positively, and they are less likely to get credit for their ideas.

The power of stereotypes explains, in part, the dearth of women leaders. After all, many of our stereotypes about work and leadership are male advantaging. We implicitly believe that men are better at certain roles or tasks—as the police chief example reveals. When businesses choose candidates for leadership roles, the selection process often results in a slate entirely composed of men. Stereotypes play a part in this process in two ways: First, because committee members scrutinize women candidates more critically. Second, because committees shift the criteria used to evaluate candidates.

“What this means is that the man ends up being judged by a more lenient standard than the woman,” Correll says.  “It is as if the bar is higher for women than it is for men.” This difference in standards means that there will be more men than women on the other side of the bar.

Creating change

But how can we bring standards together so that the average women is rated the same as the average man? Correll has a number of suggestions for organizations to help break the tendency to use stereotypes as cognitive shortcuts. 

First, organizations must educate, or ‘arm the choir,’ by giving well-intentioned men and women the tools to avoid bias themselves and the tools to think about changes within their organizations.

Second, she argues that organizations must establish clear criteria for evaluations.  “The more formal the criteria there are, the more women and underrepresented minorities will be hired,” she said. 

For example, in the police chief study, researchers were able to reduce the bias against the woman candidate by asking participants to commit to an evaluation criteria before viewing the applicants. When participants stated ahead of time that they preferred education over experience, they then followed through on this preference—even when it meant selecting the woman candidate.

Third, organizations must evaluate the criteria they use to ensure it’s the correct approach. This is because criteria often come about through historical means.  People look around and see who was successful in the past. But this doesn’t necessarily predict who will be successful in the future. 

For instance, Carnegie Mellon University increased the percentage of women in Computer Science from 7 percent to 42 percent in five years by decreasing the requirements about previous levels of computer experience, as it is an ability that can be taught. This change did not impact the quality of Computer Science graduates.

Next, organizations must hold decision-makers accountable for their decisions and be transparent.  Individuals can do the same for their decisions. “When you have to explain your decision to someone else, when I have to explain why I preferred Bob over Sally, for example, I more carefully scrutinize my own decision-making, I don’t just go with my hunches. I have to tell you what I cared about and what I did. And in the process of deliberating and thinking through the decision process more carefully, we break the tendency to use stereotypes as a shortcut,” Correll says.  Tracking numerical progress toward gender equity is also essential, as organizations “manage what they measure.”  It also signals to workers that it is something that the organization cares about.

Finally, we can all endorse the competence of women leaders. This helps minimize the stereotypically driven doubts about women leaders or women in stereotypically male roles.  One study found that undergraduate students rated female graduate teaching assistants more positively after a faculty member vouched for their experience and expertise. 

Correll urges organizations to adopt these changes, as they not only promote equality, but are also good business.  Judging women and men by the same standard allows organizations to hire more qualified candidates, make better decisions, and more effectively use the existing talent within their organization.


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.