The right note on gender and hiring
CHICAGO — In the 1970s and 1980s, symphony orchestras around the world began implementing a system of "blind" auditions — performances given from behind a screen — to diversify their ranks while ensuring that elite talent and meritocracy ruled.
It worked out well, with Princeton University research showing that blind auditions increased the probability that women would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.
Abbie Conant was one of those who auditioned from behind a screen, winning out over 32 of the world's finest male brass players.
She entered into history as the first female principal trombonist of the Munich Philharmonic, but Conant was immediately demoted once her probationary period ended. She said the orchestra's music director insisted that the top trombone player simply had to be a man.
In 1993, after years of litigation, Conant won a settlement that included back pay and a promise that the Munich Philharmonic would not assign her any work except solo trombone.
Conant's hard-won and not entirely satisfying victory (the shabby treatment precipitated her resignation from the orchestra soon after the settlement) recently came to mind as a slew of research reports seemingly underscored the one-step-forward-two-steps-back state of female advancements in the workplace.
A paper in the August issue of the Academy of Management Journal found that activities used to diversify a workplace, such as targeted recruiting or special training programs and their associated support cohorts (i.e., affinity groups for women or Hispanics), may have the effect of stigmatizing these hires and impairing their performance.
Such initiatives can send the message that "certain groups need extra help," the report's co-author, Lisa Leslie, told The Wall Street Journal. She suggested that companies can prevent this by reinforcing to the entire workforce that new hires and promotions are based on merit.
Adding to the confusing tangle of literature about how women must act in order to be taken seriously in the workplace is a piece in the Psychology of Women Quarterly suggesting that when women try to enter traditionally masculine fields or roles — engineering or management, for example — it's better to describe themselves in terms of stereotypically masculine traits and downplay their femininity.
Another study, from Washington University, on how gender stereotypes affect workplace behavior, found that even though women are known to boost team collaboration and creativity in small working groups, this is only true when women work on teams that aren't competing against each other.
As lead author Marcus Baer noted, "Women contributed less and less to the team's creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this fall-off was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women."
The American Sociological Association released a study that found requests for flexible work options spur different reactions when coming from men than from women. When men ask to work from home to take care of kids, they're often seen as extremely likable. The women who make the same request? Not so much, by a factor of eight (24.3 percent versus 3 percent).
Author Christin Munsch said people should "be hesitant in assuming" that flexible work options as a way to promote gender equality and a remedy for work-family conflict "is effective." She warns employers to be aware of their own biases before assessing employees who use these policies.
The best piece of advice that employers and women hoping to make it in the working world can take from this litany of downer research is to accept it with a big, fat grain of salt and then promptly forget about it.
It's good to know that in certain, highly specific situations, innate gender biases cloud vision — and it's not a bad idea to be prepared to address these situations.
But the best thing managers and recruiters can do is to use common sense and treat people as individuals rather than simply as subjects of corporate policy.
As for women, the most important quality to take into any professional situation is your own ironclad belief in your talent, skills and worth as a competitive asset for your employer.
This unyielding self-respect carried Abbie Conant through her struggle and she became an icon to female musicians and fans. Belief in ourselves can help sustain the rest of us, too.
Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.