Recently we asked more than 100 senior executive women from around the world to tell us at what stage in their careers they faced the most gender bias or discrimination. Half told us mid-career — that is, roughly their mid-30s to late 40s. Other research we’ve conducted suggests that the intensity of bias at this career stage may come as an unpleasant surprise. In 2021, we surveyed women who had graduated from Harvard Business School 10 to 20 years earlier, and they told us that gender bias against them in the workplace was higher than they had expected it to be when they graduated. White women reported levels of gender bias that were three times as high as what they anticipated, and women of color reported levels that were almost double their expectation. (Perhaps women of color were somewhat more realistic about the level of discrimination in many workplaces.)
To be sure, the issues faced by early-career women — being taken less seriously than male peers, being expected to do more “office housework” — are significant, but the women we study (high-achieving, highly educated professionals) often push through subtle barriers. Objective measures of performance that predominate in early career stages are a boon for women, as they make it harder for bias to creep into how they are assessed and rewarded.
That changes in mid-career. To learn more about what that shift entails, we asked our pool of 100 senior executives to share details with us about how they had been affected by bias and discrimination during that stage of their careers. They provided us with lots of stories and observations, and as we sifted through them, we found that three main challenges emerged again and again: unfair assumptions, unhelpful attention, and unequal access.
If managers hope to level the playing field for mid-career women, and hope to benefit from their full potential, they need to be aware of each of these challenges. Here’s a sampling of what the executives in our study had to say about them.
Several unfair assumptions, rooted in gender stereotypes, impede women at mid-career.
One of the most common is that these women, who are often actively parenting, are less committed to their careers than their male peers. This assumption has demonstrably harmful effects: Studies have found that it leads to discrimination against women when it comes to hiring, promotion, and pay. Scholars call this form of discrimination “the motherhood penalty.”
An executive in our pool described in painful detail how she had been affected by the motherhood penalty:
A director-level position opened up in the department where I was a senior manager. There was another male senior manager who applied for my same job. We had the same responsibilities, but my regional revenue, number of customers, and number of direct subordinates were all significantly larger. I was also pregnant at the time. The promotion went to my colleague. I asked the vice president why he chose my male colleague, and he told me (“confidentially”) that I may have been more qualified, but as he could not be sure that I would return to work after giving birth, he felt it was safer to promote the other candidate. Today, I believe no one would actually tell a woman that she lost a promotion due to being pregnant, but instead will come up with other, “legitimate” reasons for the lost opportunity.
Another woman confirmed to us that such biased assumptions about “commitment” are less explicit but still present today. “I have heard [it] masked on multiple occasion as ‘concern for the individual,’” she told us, “but rarely is it voiced around male talent.”
Many of the executives in our pool also encountered the assumption that women are less suited for leadership than men. One told us that when she was at the mid-career stage, about a decade ago, the prevailing view at her company was that only white men were able to successfully perform “high-pressure jobs.” This cultural consensus meant that she was tracked into lower-status, lower-paying jobs. “I wasn’t considered for key roles,” she told us, “and eventually left the company when my career stopped progressing.”
Another woman described a “perception [that] women in mid-career are inexperienced compared to their male counterparts,” a mindset that treats women as categorically less capable than men, as if they take longer to acquire knowledge and skills. “This type of thinking,” the executive told us, “keeps women from being promoted and receiving proper pay increases for added responsibilities.”
The women we talked to often described confronting hyper-scrutiny and skepticism. These biased forms of attention, which can be particularly damaging during the high-stakes mid-career period, shows up in the well-documented competence-vs.-likability double bind. As one executive told us, “You are seen as a bitch if you are too successful, or a mothering figure if you are well liked.” Another went into more detail. “I have been criticized,” she told us, “for terminating employees or changing their job responsibilities when they were not fit for their roles — after coaching, performance managing, and so on. I did that less [often] and with more consideration than most men did, yet I was labelled as being ‘cruel,’ not ‘soft’ and ‘considerate,’ and so on.”
Many of the executives in our pool reported having to clear a higher bar to be rewarded. Looking back on her mid-career moments, one of them recalled, “It took me 11 years to get to the general manager position from the moment I first got promoted to executive/commercial director.” That, she noted, represented a longer period than was normal for her male peers. “I had to prove myself three times,” she continued, “in three different markets.”
The women in our pool also told us that networks become highly gendered at mid-career, with men having superior access to senior leaders and often prioritizing relationships with male over female colleagues.
By mid-career, one executive explained, “men have established their ‘cliques.’” She went on to highlight how these exclusionary networks limit women’s opportunities. “If you are not in the club by then,” she said, “chances of you getting picked for the next team dramatically decrease.”
Another described how she witnessed this process unfold at her firm: Older male leaders would see some image of themselves in the younger male employees. They might be inclined to have them to drinks or dinner or to golf, tennis, or professional sports games with clients, or to have social discussions in their office with a same-gender junior employee. Given that most of the clients were men, it generally was just easier to introduce another man into the social mix.
Although the exclusion wasn’t deliberate, she went on to say, it undercut the company’s own desire for advancing women, as “critical promotion decisions are made mid-career that are more significantly impacted by strength of relationships than at other points in the career.”
When men, particularly those in powerful positions, don’t take the time to cultivate strong relationships with the women in their companies they inadvertently constrain those women’s careers and limit their own knowledge about what their colleagues are capable of.
Removing Mid-Career Barriers
Tackling gender disparities at whatever career stage they appear is important, but the urgency is great at mid-career, when the potential impacts on advancement are so significant. As one executive noted, “mid-career positions are proving grounds.”
So how can managers help to remove bias from management processes to give mid-career women the fair treatment and they opportunities they deserve?
Two processes to focus on, we’ve found, are performance evaluation and promotion, both of which are especially salient at mid-career — and both of which, our own and others’ research indicates, are rife with gender discrimination. When performance criteria are unstructured, and when managers are untrained on recognizing bias, men and women are unlikely to receive equal ratings for equal performance.
So if you want to retain and advance women at mid-career, it’s vital that you codify objective, measurable, and job-related standards by which to assess employees. One researcher who studies professional service firms found that tools which provide managers with gender-neutral feedback language that they can deliver in real time help to keep assessments focused on objective performance measures and provide employees with more useful, actionable feedback than they tend to receive in annual reviews.
Of course, the most equitably designed tools and systems can be overwhelmed by the biases held (consciously or unconsciously) by the people executing them, so companies must support managers in recognizing, acknowledging, and mitigating such bias when it crops up. Such an approach need not be adversarial or punitive — to the contrary, cultivating the psychological safety for managers to raise the issue of bias means making such issues “discussable” and a focus of problem-solving, not shaming.
Leaders can set the stage by modeling vulnerability — admitting when they don’t know something or are wrong — and demonstrating a commitment to learning about social inequality and how it manifests in their organizations. These personal commitments are supported and reinforced when companies institute ongoing and rigorous auditing of processes such as promotion and compensation, and when, having discovered disparities that can’t be explained by objective factors, companies work to correct them.
The good news is that in recent years many companies, particularly large and medium-sized ones, are giving full-throated support to the idea of gender equity at work. They’re talking the talk — and it may even be that some are walking the walk. A survey we conducted in 2021 with another group of executive women gives us cause for cautious optimism. These women reported a 10 point increase since 2020 in the percentage of managers at their organizations whom they believed to be inclusive. They also reported an incremental reduction in the perception of gender bias in most organizational processes, as compared to the perceptions of similar groups of women we surveyed in 2018 and 2019.
Are these temporary shifts, perhaps tied to an elevated awareness of social inequality during the Covid pandemic and ongoing racial-justice protests, or are they signs of true progress? We hope they’re portents of the latter, and that the women leaders who contributed to this research will see more and more mid-career women successfully climbing the ladder behind them.
This article first appears on hrb.org