We are all aware of the challenges that women face in the workforce. Study after study has shown that women not only earn less than men, but they're also less likely to receive promotions and are significantly under-represented in the senior management of most major companies, even though there are more female workers graduating college and entering the workforce than ever before. The question is why?

Two Harvard grads set out to find an answer.

In a report written in the Harvard Business Review, the two researchers - Stephen Turban and Laura Freeman, along with Dr. Ben Waber who runs a human resources analytics company that employed both researchers - decided to apply a more stringent test to determine why women are treated differently than men.

The team collected, anonymized and analyzed emails and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees at their company, Humanyze, across all levels of workers over a four-month period of time. All of the employees at the company wear "sociometric badges" which are designed to "record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges and the volume and tone of speech to determine who's dominating conversations and where they take place.” The researchers selected 100 of these employees randomly to drill down on the data, knowing only gender, position and time they've been with the company.

And what did the researchers find? Nothing. Which actually means something.

By nothing, I mean that there were virtually no differences in the behavior of female employees when compared to their male counterparts. Women workers at Humanyze met with as many people as men, spent the same amount of time with senior management, demonstrated similar work patterns and received "statistically identical scores" in performance reviews. And yet, even though women represented 35-40 percent of the entry level class at Humanyze, only 20 percent of them made it to the second highest level at the organization.

What gives? Was it just choice? Family demands weighing heavier on females? Lack of entry into the "boy's club" or male-dominated networks? The researchers found no significant evidence backing up these reasons either. In the end, one answer stood out among all: it’s just simple, plain...bias.

"Bias, as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently," Waber wrote in Harvard Business Review. "Our data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions. For example, consider female mentorship programs that try to connect high-potential women with management. If women talk to leadership at similar rates as men, then the problem isn’t lack of access but how those conversations are viewed."

In others words, it doesn’t matter what females are saying and doing, it’s how we’re perceiving what they’re saying and doing. Guys, we have some work to do.

Waber suggests a few actions that companies should be taking to address this issue, like instituting "bias-reduction programs" with policies to "level the playing field" which emphasize teams over individuals and to be more accommodating to the particular work/family demands that today's female executive/wife/mother may be facing. All of these approaches will help.

But in reality, this problem is not going to be solved immediately. But there has been progress. For God's sake, anyone who watched Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men know that women didn't even the right to vote before 1920 and faced an inordinate amount of discrimination as recently as the 1960's and 1970's that would be completely unacceptable in today’s workplace.

For women, things have changed dramatically for the better. But there’s still much progress that needs to be made. The average age of a business owner and senior executive today is about 52 years old, which means that he (yes, mostly he) came from a different era. The fight for equal rights will remain hugely important over the years to come, but I'm confident that our next generation of leaders will be much more aware of and empathetic towards this issue than our current generation.  That should be good news for our daughters and grand-daughters.

Published on: Oct 26, 2017