Understanding the Brain Science & Unconscious Bias Behind the Gender Pay Gap

As a newly minted female scientist in the mid 1980’s, I found myself in the vanguard of a movement of women into science and leadership. It was a time of optimism. 1981 marked the year women began earning more college degrees than men, a gap that has widened every year since. We entered the marketplace in unprecedented numbers, naively assuming that pay equality had been put to rest by the feminists who preceded us.

Thirty years later, the numbers tell a starkly different story, as evidenced by today’s observance of Equal Pay Day, symbolizing how far into the year women work to earn what men earned the previous year.

We’ve all seen the statistic: in the United States, women make 79 cents to every dollar earned by men, a figure often dismissed as a feminist fiction. Child-bearing, along with differences in experience, age, background and ambition are cited as the true culprits.

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In truth, pay inequality varies widely by profession, age, education and region. Research from Glassdoor, based on 505,000 anonymously shared employee salaries, found a pay differential of 19.2% even after adjusting for age, education and experience. When researchers also included job title, employer and location, the gap fell to 5.4%. Not as dramatic, but a sizeable difference amortized over a lifetime.

Why don’t women with the same age, experience and education stay in lucrative fields and attain the same organizational stature as their male counterparts? Do women lack ambition, as some suggest? Do they drop out to have children, as many posit? Are they lacking in confidence? Or is something else inhibiting their progression up the leadership ladder?

Contrary to our perceived experience of reality, conscious decisions drive a tiny fraction of our behavior. The human brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine, built to unconsciously replicate the culture in which we are immersed.  When we meet another human being, we fill in large swaths of information, correctly or not, from unconsciously stored patterns absorbed from media and our daily interactions.

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These unconscious biases influence not only the salaries and promotions offered women with equivalent credentials, but over time impact women’s confidence and desire to remain in certain professions.

Because men have traditionally occupied most leadership positions, our brains have come to associate “male” and “masculine traits” with leadership and business. A vast body of academic research supports that we unconsciously underestimate female competence at every level, starting from birth. In fact, a New York University study shows that mothers typically underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters and overestimate that of their sons!

As much as we link “male” with “assertive” and “leadership,” we associate being a “good” woman with modesty, nurturing and support. Without knowing it, we fall into patterned roles. Men act assertively. Women accommodate.

Those who violate unconscious expectations are often seen as emotionally suspect. How often have you heard someone state that while Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to be President, “I just don’t trust her.” Competence is positively associated with likeability for men and negatively correlated for women.

Since we promote people who are both likeable and competent, women find themselves in a terrible double bind. The pay gap increases with seniority. While failure to negotiate salary is a commonly accepted explanation, studies show that women are often penalized for doing so. Playing hardball is inconsistent with preconceived notions of femininity.

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The pernicious underestimation of female competence leads to another unfortunate consequence: Women are more likely to attribute their success to luck, while men attribute it to expertise and hard work. When you don’t believe in your own competence, you’re less likely to throw your hat in the ring when the opportunity for promotion arises– and to be compulsively over-prepared before you do.

While unconscious bias is acquired through exposure to environmental patterns, humans come preloaded with an instinctual preference for similarity. We tend to unconsciously trust, associate with and desire to promote those who most remind us of ourselves. When men dominate positions of power in organizations, this can exclude women from access to the networks and conversations necessary to prepare them for the next level.

Humans also gravitate toward surroundings that reflect our preferences. Environments that signal outsider status create stress. Business culture favors the masculine perspective, not because of an intention to harm women, but because men originally designed it.

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It takes more than legislation to remedy the effects of unconscious biases. As a society, we need to bring inequities into the light and do the hard work of creating a new “normal” for business. As women, we need forums such as the Watermark Conference for Women Silicon Valley where we can share strategies and create our own networks of support. Together we can create a culture that recognizes and rewards the strengths and contributions of women and men alike.


Janet Crawford will moderate a conversation exploring the neuroscience and practical art of power at the Watermark Conference for Women Silicon Valley on April 21 in San Jose. For more information or to register, visit www.watermarkconferenceforwomen.org.

{Image credit: Pixabay}

About the Author

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JANET CRAWFORD is CEO of Cascadance, Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area-based firm supporting leaders in building brain-friendly organizations. A pioneer in the application of neuroscience research to corporate culture, Crawford speaks internationally on unconscious bias, stereotype threat and the biology of power, including a 2014 address at the prestigious TEDx San Diego, and designs enterprise-wide change efforts to help companies uncover and address the hidden roots of inequity.

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