Most of us like to think of ourselves as unbiased. We make a sincere effort to ensure that stereotypes and preconceived judgments do not play a role in our decision-making, especially when it comes to hiring and promotions.

Yet, there is a subtle, unconscious bias that still prevails in the manufacturing industry and in the general workplace today, even within organizations that pride themselves on their efforts to provide equal opportunity for all.

This unconscious bias relates to gender and, specifically, the perceptions we have of the roles typically played by women and men in the workplace and in society.

Surprisingly, these perceptions are often held by women as well as men, even though they can impede opportunities for women’s advancement. As a result, they create challenges for women in the workplace that receive relatively little attention in the conversation about equal opportunity. Many people are unaware that this bias even exists.

Researchers Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb call this “second-generation” bias. In their article, "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers", they note: “Research has moved away from a focus on the deliberate exclusion of women and toward investigating ‘second-generation’ forms of gender bias as the primary cause of women’s persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles. This bias erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”

This strong and invisible bias can exclude women from opportunities in many ways. For example, gendered work roles and career paths are the norm in many industries, and particularly in manufacturing. These industries, and society, expect men to fill the vast majority of engineering, sales representative, and high-level management positions, while quality control, safety, accounting, human resources and other support-oriented careers are more typically associated with women.

This creates a “double bind” mismatch for women between what are considered feminine qualities (nurturing, caring, supportive, kind, etc.) as opposed to desired leadership characteristics (aggressiveness, independence, control, drive, etc.), which are deemed as more “masculine.”

Whether intentional or not, the tendency is for organizations and industries to provide more career-related development and opportunities for men than for women. This stems from society’s stereotypical beliefs that not only do men better exhibit the traits usually associated with good leaders, but also that women naturally place a priority on family and raising children, while men are concerned only about their careers.

Additionally, because there are few women currently in these roles, younger women often lack female senior management role models within their desired career paths, and they experience a lack of access to networks, mentors, and sponsorships that can be critical to career advancement.

In "What Works for Women at Work" Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey describe four workplace patterns that can arise from unconscious gender bias:

  • Women have to provide more evidence of competence than men in order to be seen as equally competent – they have to prove themselves again, and again, and again.
  • Women find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent – or too masculine to be likable.
  • The social stereotype is that women lose their work commitment and competence after they have children, and that mothers can’t commit to both a career and raising a family at the same time.
  • Gender bias can fuel a tug-of-war conflict among women, particularly in traditionally masculine domains such as manufacturing, where women compete against each other for only a limited number of opportunities.

Perhaps the reason this kind of bias is so powerful, entrenched, and ignored is that it is accepted so naturally as part of our societal expectations, and it is not malicious in any way. By contrast, “first-generation” bias, which is more direct and deliberate in excluding specific classes of people from opportunities, is easier to identify and, therefore, easier to correct. Unconscious bias is an unseen and often unrecognized enemy that requires a widespread change in attitudes and beliefs before it can be fully vanquished.

So, what can we do about it?

For starters, as Sheryl Sandberg advocates in her book,  Lean In, women in the workforce can be more active in developing leadership skills and promoting themselves as leaders. And, through their actions and commitment to their careers as well as their families, women can leave little doubt that they are capable of succeeding at both.

Yet, it is far from sufficient to put the onus of change on individual women only.  For organizations that have worked to eliminate first-generation bias, yet still see a lack of women in key roles, the burden is on them to engender organizational culture transformation – bringing about a mindset change in how the workplace is structured for equality of access and opportunity.

This is facilitated by the commitment of resources by top management, particularly to compile and analyze data to show that their recruitment, promotion, compensation, and development decisions are truly equitable. To combat second-generation bias, programs may be needed to educate both men and women about these attitudes and prioritize the elimination of unconscious bias as well as the more direct kind.

Individual managers, both men and women, can help by holding training sessions, doing more mentoring, and becoming more sensitive to how women are treated in meetings, performance evaluations, and work-related activities in general.

The good news is, as Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb observe, “Second-generation bias is embedded in stereotypes and organizational practices that can be hard to detect, but when people are made aware of it, they see possibilities for change.”

We help make people aware through proactive efforts such as our Leadership Lab for Women in Manufacturing at Case Western Reserve University, where we are building toward a new style of inclusive leadership that will genuinely welcome and promote diversity in the workplace of the future. It is our hope that unconscious bias eventually will be recognized for what it is, and will have no place in that future.

Diana Bilimoria is the KeyBank Professor, Chair and Professor of Organizational Behavior​ Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.