My Verdict on Gender Bias in the Workplace

    Background: In a recent post I expressed confusion and ignorance about gender bias in the workplace. I asked how it could be true that studies consistently show bias against woman while studies on pay gap do not reflect that bias (according to strangers on the the Internet). Clearly someone is wrong. But who? I had no idea.

    So I declared a link war to get to the bottom of things. You sent me your links, and I will declare my verdict(s) today.

    But this will not be a closed verdict. This post will stay alive, and I will update it as necessary based on new information. So consider this a draft opinion that can improve over time if we let it. I use science as my model here. We will crawl toward the truth without ever knowing if we are all the way there.

    For your reading convenience, I will put this discussion in the form of claims that I judge to be true or not. And I will try to call out my bias in this process as I see it. Feel free to shine a spotlight on anything I miss.

    Thanks to all of you for submitting links. And special thanks to Drowlord101 for compiling them by categories. His full list is at the end of this post.

    My system for evaluating claims of truth involves looking for consistency. Ideally, all scientific studies would point in the same direction. That seems to be the case on this topic. While folks interpret the results in different ways, the data itself seems consistent.

    The other consistency I look for is with my own experience, with common sense, and with the claims and reports of others. Unfortunately, none of those sources of wisdom are reliable. And scientific studies have their own problems. So for me, as a minimum standard, something has to make sense on two dimensions. In other words, if the science matches my experience, or the experience of women, or common sense, I give it more weight than if any of those things are in conflict.

    So let’s get to it.

    Claim 1: Bias against women exists, and it has an impact on how people act in the real world.

    Verdict: True. Multiple studies support this claim. Common sense supports this claim. Personal experience supports this claim. And reports of women support this claim. Confidence level: 100%. (And the same could be said about bias against men.)

    Claim 2: Women (as a group) earn about three-quarters of what men (as a group) earn in the United States.

    Verdict: True. All studies show a pay gap in that range. And common sense agrees that if women enter careers with lower pay, the average pay of women will be lower. Confidence: 100%

    Claim 3: Women who have equal experience as men are paid about three-quarters of what men earn.

    Verdict: False. No one who is informed on this topic, including feminists, claim that women of equal talent and experience are paid about three-quarters of what men make, at least in the United States. The pay gap in this particular type of study is only telling us that women choose careers with lower pay. No attempt has been made to isolate how much of the gap, if any, is based on bias. Confidence: 100%

    Claim 4: Studies that adjust for equal experience on the same job show a gender pay gap in the 5-10% range. If gender bias exists, it would be in that number, and it would be a big deal.

    Verdict: True. Studies that control for job type and experience still show a substantial and troubling difference in pay by gender. If the pay gap is based on bias, the evidence could be hidden in that number. And it would be a big deal.

    Claim 5: The existence of a pay gap by gender is so persistent across studies that an intelligent person must conclude bias is a big part of the story. 

    Verdict: False. The well-informed on all sides of the topic agree that there are too many uncontrolled variables in the studies to isolate for gender bias in pay gaps. Here are some uncontrolled variables that easily come to my mind:

    1. We know tall men earn more than short men. And we know women are generally shorter than men. How much height bias is in the pay difference for women?

    2. On average, men and women are different creatures. and they employ different strategies in life, especially when it comes to risk. If male strategies (on average) are more suited to workplace competition, you would expect to see that reflected in pay.

    3. What is the impact of desire on success? If society has primed young women to seek balance, and primed young men to seek business success, we would expect different outcomes by gender based on social priming. Some say this is a problem, but it is not a gender bias in the workplace problem. Under this line of thinking, the problem starts in childhood. (More on this later.)

    4. Do women and men have the same ego flexibility on average? If you tell me I need to dress like a clown to get a raise, I will immediately go shopping for a clown suit. Other folks might prefer lower pay to avoid the humiliation of the clown suit. Given the way men and women are socialized differently, one can easily imagine a difference in ego flexibility. Does it matter?

    5. If men take larger risks, we would expect to see more failures and more big successes too. When you fail, and stay in the same field, your pay generally does not go to zero. But if you succeed big, your pay has a nearly unlimited upside. So I wonder if the few men who succeed by luck, because of greater risk-taking, are skewing the average.

    6. Some have hypothesized that evolution makes us act in ways that support our reproductive instincts and everything else is just rationalization. According to this way of thinking, men pursue success to increase their sexual options. For women, business success is unrelated to their ability to get sex. All other things being equal, will the person with the greatest sexual incentive perform better?

    7. The hobby-geek hypothesis says men are more likely than women to spend their personal time learning relevant skills. In the stereotyped example, women learn what they need to know to perform the job whereas men have a natural interest in technology and geeky topics that continues into their leisure time. The implication is that even with equal time on the job, the average man is picking up more skills, and eventually it translates into a pay difference.

    There you have seven high-potential explanations for a gender pay gap that do no rely on gender bias. Anyone with knowledge on this topic can probably come up with more high-potential explanations for the gender pay gap. I make no claim that any of these explanations are valid. My only point is that they are not studied. And that leads to my most interesting verdict…

    Claim 6: Studies show that women with equal experience to men, in the same jobs, are paid less because of gender bias.

    Verdict: False. No well-informed feminist makes this claim because the studies have not controlled for the variables necessary to reach an informed opinion. As far as I can tell, the reason no useful studies on this topic exist is because it would be impossible to control all the relevant variables to isolate bias.

    Claim 7: The lack of scientific evidence for gender bias in pay levels is evidence it does not exist.

    Verdict: False. You can not prove a negative. The lack of useful data is not proof that gender bias has no impact on pay levels. Evaluating this verdict in terms of consistency, I have never personally witnessed a case of an underpaid woman that I recognized as such. Nor have I heard of any such case in recent years. So on every level in which data could be forthcoming on this topic, I see none.

    But my lack of seeing something is not evidence that it does not exist. Bias would give me the same subjective experience. 

    Keep in mind that controlled experiments outside the workplace consistently show evidence of gender bias. Teachers give better grades on math tests when there is a male name on the test. Men get more job interviews for the same resume as a woman. And female musicians are less likely to be hired when the person doing the hiring knows the gender, as opposed to simply listening to the performance. How the hell could all of that bias NOT translate into the workplace, you might ask.

    But we also know that managers in the modern workplace are trained to be on alert for bias and to seek the best employees. And we know managers get kudos and professional respect when they accomplish diversity. How could you measure that counter-force?

    So while gender bias clearly displays itself in controlled studies, the workplace is messier, nearly impossible to measure, and has counter-forces against gender bias that are generally ignored in studies. There is no real way to isolate all of the variables.

    Claim 8: Gender bias is a bigger problem for women than it is for men because we live in a patriarchy.

    Verdict: Half true. A well-educated white alpha male experiences little or no gender “problems” in his life. And when you are winning a game, you always think the rules are fair. If you are lucky enough to be in this rare group, and I am, gender bias is not on your list of biggest personal problems.

    Some of you know my back story, and you know my careers in banking and telecommunications ended when my boss for each job told me in clear language that I could not be promoted because I was a white male. Both companies were under public pressure to bring diversity to the ranks of management, so they put a brake on promoting white males for several years. Now put my experience in perspective: I lost two promising careers to gender discrimination and I STILL don’t rank it as a problem in my life because of my educated white male advantage. All I had to do was pivot from a place with disadvantages to a place where I had none. I recall being incensed by the inconvenience of changing careers, but I never felt as though my career options were limited in a meaningful way.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of men in the United States are not in my situation. Most men are competing on a more equal playing field with everyone else in the world. For that group, the white male advantage is not working its full magic, and the sensitivity to any small advantage for women would be, one assumes, greater.

    The topic of gender “advantage” led me to some interesting lists of the many ways it sucks to be male. I found every item on the lists to be true, such as the fact that men experience a lot of violence in their lives. Interestingly, none of the disadvantages of being a man actually register with me in my real life as “problems.” As a man, I have a higher risk for all sorts of danger, but that danger matches my personal preferences. If my female friend and I come upon a fight that needs to be broken up, I have a strong preference for being the one that takes on that risk. I don’t know how much is biology and how much is social programming, but if I am getting what I prefer, can I call it a problem? 

    In summary, there are plenty of disadvantages of being male, female, or any variation on the spectrum. But those “disadvantages” might not seem so bad to the people experiencing them. For example, I would never want the disadvantage of having a baby-making body, with all the maintenance and risk involved. But if a magic genie gave all women a chance to become men, I suspect few would take the option. People tend to be happy with their situation even if observers feel they should not be.

    The problem, some say, is that women might be making personal choices early in life that limit their access to money, power, and influence as adults. And those “choices” might be the result of societal programming as opposed to rational decision-making. Is this a problem that needs to be fixed? 

    By one filter, folks are just making decisions based on preferences and there is no problem whatsoever. By another filter, all kids are incompetent decision-makers, so if society is steering half of them wrong, that is an enormous drag on civilization. So yes, it might be a very, very big deal.

    But now we get to the interesting part.

    Feminism works because it raises awareness of our biases and our choices. And it acts as a club when needed. Thanks to the good work of feminists and their allies, the gender pay gap has reached a point where bias is hard to tease out of the data. I worry that if you removed the social force of feminist activism society might slide backwards on gender bias.

    The interesting part of the story is that the most effective tool feminists have is a misinterpretation of the study data. Feminist activists have convinced the under-informed public (including me until this week) that the gender pay gap is clearly demonstrated by studies. The result is that men are keenly aware they are being watched on this topic, and when you watch people they act more responsibly. So the bad interpretation of the data probably gets us to a better world. Who would act differently if they thought the studies said this: “There is a gender pay gap, and there are lots of potential explanations for it, but we haven’t isolated all the variables.” That would inspire no one to act differently.

    So there is a rational argument for the continued misinterpretation of the gender pay gap data because it seems a useful counter-weight against a tendency for male bias. To put it another way, if you need all that advocacy and pressure just to get within spitting distance of male pay levels, the pressure must have been working against some other force. And the best candidate for that opposing force is gender bias. (Clearly this is speculation.)

    On the other hand, my background in hypnosis and my hobby-level knowledge on the science of influence tells me this might be the time for gender activists to switch tactics. When women did not have the right to vote, society needed a sledgehammer to fix the problem. Now that women are succeeding in all fields, perhaps a scalpel is in order for tweaking the last mile.

    Feminism currently sends this message to young girls: The world is full of gender bias and male privilege. If you are born a woman, you are a second-class citizen. Adult women are failing to achieve equal pay with men.

    Compare that to a message that is just as consistent with the available data but to me sounds more positive: Despite thousands of years of gender bias, women are succeeding in every field that interests them. The gender pay gap has shrunk to the point where we can not identify gender bias as a cause. You are all winners. And all paths are open.

    Feminists, I think it is time to take a bow. You won. And the world is a far better place for your efforts. I think I can speak for all men who have mothers, sisters, female friends, female spouses, and female lovers when I say, “Thank you.”

    But I also say maybe it is time to stop fighting the last war and adjust your strategy to reflect the reality in 2015.

    As an employer, if you tell me women are underpaid everywhere else, I start to wonder about the competitiveness of women. Can all of those other employers be wrong? But if you tell me the opposite – that women are paid about the same when they do the same work – I view women and men as equal commodities. In other words, trying to fix the remaining bias problem with politics might be the only thing that prevents market forces from fixing the situation on its own. That is speculation, but it feels reasonable enough to be worthy of testing, assuming such studies are possible.

    I made a lot of references to studies without linking to them. You can find most of those links in Drowlord101s list below. But if anything I said is not backed by data, let me know and I will adjust.

    And remember this is a living debate. My assumption is that it will change over time.

    A final note on my personal biases: I did not expect my verdict to go this way. I thought there would be studies supporting opposite sides of the issue and it would be impossible to sort them out. My blind spot was assuming feminists were on the same page. It turns out that well-informed people of all types are on the same page with this topic and the under-informed are on another page. 

    Now you are part of the well-informed.

    But let’s not call this truth. Let’s call it a first draft. It is your turn to fix what I got wrong.

    Update 1 (3/20/15):

    Claim 9: If a gender pay gap existed, employers would only hire women. Since that is not happening, there must be no gender pay gap.

    Verdict: False. Capitalism is not a precise instrument. I never knew what my coworkers earned. And if gender bias is unconscious, as is the claim, the employer would be unaware of any gender pay gap in his own company. And if an employer discriminates against mothers, for example, it is because he believes (without data) that they are less productive. Why would a sexist employer load up on unproductive employees?

    The argument that capitalism would have fixed any gender pay gaps works if the pay gap is 25% and easy to spot. No well-informed person believes the gap is in that range. Capitalism would not detect and fix a 5% pay gap that studies can not tease out of the data with certainty, and that employers don’t see with their own eyes (perhaps because of bias).

    Update 2 (3/21/15):

    Claim 10: By writing that feminists can “take a bow” on the topic of pay parity you suggest there is no problem left to solve when your own analysis says there could be plenty of bias involved in pay decisions.

    Verdict: Guilty of being unclear. In this context, winning on pay parity means you can step over one pile of dog poop without stepping in another. It does not mean all poop is removed. There is every reason to believe that as women continue succeeding in every field, educated people will more easily see past their biases and hire the most qualified candidates out of self-interest alone. So from this point on, the problem of gender bias in pay will be increasingly self-solving, especially if society is on the alert for it and the penalty for deviating is high. From an economic perspective (as opposed to a fairness standard), my hypothesis is that feminist resources would have more impact on other women’s issues, which brings us to…

    Claim 11: By focusing on the pay gap issue you leave the impression that most of the work of feminism has been done. The reality is that there is a great deal of bias in the workplace (the hard-to-measure type), sex crimes, abuse, sex trafficking, reproductive rights, and lots more.

    Verdict: Valid critique because context is important. This post should not have suggested that the work of feminism in general is mostly done. I focused this post on a narrow topic for clarity but as suggested that can leave a misleading impression.

    Claim 12: What you say might be true in the United States but that ignores the rest of the world where women often have it far worse. 

    Verdict: Valid critique. The post says I am speaking about the United States, but it is easy to lose sight of that detail in a complicated article of this sort. This verdict corrects that.

    Scott Adams


    My book on success: “Best book I’ve read in years” – 5-star review on, Andrew Chowning.

    The Drowlord101 Link List (comments are his)


    Reputable News Sites………………… (gender bias & business loans)…

    Disreputable News Sites…………

    Blogs About the Subject…………………

    Tangents (e.g. not directly related to pay gap)…… (girls favored in gradeschool)…… (gender disparity in criminal cases)… (gender issues bibliography?) (men angry about stuff)… (girls favored in gradeschool)… (men favored in science at college)… (men favored in science at college)… (women overshare)…
    http://yourbusiness.azcentral…. (gender conflict in workplace)
    https://educationrealist.wordp… (gap in gre scores)

    Completely Off Topic…………… (bibliography of women violence against male partners)… (work-related injuries – mostly men)… (buying power – which gender spends the money)… (rape)… (custody and child support)… (do your own research here!)
    http://www.employersdirect-uk….… (abortion)…… (abortion)… (child support)… (rape)……… (I couldn’t view it)… (benevolent sexism)