Insights from Research on Workplace Gender Discrimination for Legal and Compliance Professionals

Jun 17, 2024 | Blog

Written by Nicole Rose, Lawyer specialising in Financial Crime, Ethics and Compliance, Founder of Untold Compliance

The Preframe

Intentional and unconscious biases are uncomfortable realities faced by many professionals, especially lawyers and compliance officers. The joke, “I walk into a party, tell people what I do, and they walk out,” is often said in jest but contains a grain of truth.

In my new book, Told: How In-House Legal and Compliance Professionals Secure Airtime, Gain Traction, and Transform Organizations, I share strategies for in-house professionals in Legal, Ethics, Compliance, and related roles to boost their effectiveness, influence, and internal brand.

To do this topic justice, I examined insights not only from my own experience as a lawyer working in Compliance but also from others outside the profession. During this research, I encountered studies on unconscious bias focused on workplace gender discrimination. This is research that I feel is beneficial to the discussion of influence, or lack of it, working in-house Legal and Compliance teams.

This paper therefore explores biases in the workplace (relating to gender and role), drawing on personal anecdotes, interviews, and scientific research to highlight this issue. It is not intended to open a debate about gender discrimination but to learn from the research in this field and apply it to our roles in Legal and Compliance.

Writing this article was challenging, but I believe that by shedding light on the different (and often unconscious) biases that pervade our workplaces, we can begin to address them in our roles as Legal and Compliance professionals. Understanding and mitigating these biases are crucial to ensuring our voices are heard, our contributions are valued, and we are ‘told’.


Part 1:  The Research on Gender Bias at Work

Interviews: Uncovering Gender Bias

“Do you know how many times in meetings females would say something and they would move on. A few minutes later a man would say something, and they would say yes that’s something we should explore.”

This quote came from a female board director who recently shared this frustration with me.

Here’s a scenario. The name is for illustration purposes only.

Joan’s idea for a new initiative, which she has spent the past week developing, designing, and consulting with others about, is well-received by everyone in the room (who happen to all be men), and they are in unanimous agreement when she presents it. In a later meeting, a new person who comes into the group, (a man) misunderstands a detail and says, “It will never work.” Suddenly, all the men in the room agree with him, relying on the credibility of that single voice over Joan’s hours of hard work. She then spends hours correcting their misconceptions.

This story is not an uncommon one. Many people I interviewed had a similar version of this.

In meetings, I often witnessed my female colleagues’ ideas being ignored until reiterated by a male counterpart, at which point they were suddenly deemed valuable.”

However, importantly, all agreed that there was no intention to discredit their ideas – it was entirely unconscious. And this is entirely in line with the research.

In 2012 study in “Gender & Society ” revealed that men dominate meetings and are more likely to interrupt women, a phenomenon known as “manterrupting.” Women’s ideas are often overlooked until they are rephrased by male colleagues.

Another quote from my interviews gives a slightly more conscious flavour to this topic.

“Internal studies during my time on the diversity council revealed that men were consistently fast-tracked for promotions, while women in the same roles faced significant delays.”

Curiously, when further investigation was carried out and this was highlighted as an issue, people did not see anything wrong with it. One woman was even upset that her son would love his fast-track promotion within one year. This may be explained by the research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 which showed that women are less likely to be promoted compared to men with similar qualifications and job performance. This study highlighted that men were promoted based on potential, while women were promoted based on past achievements.

The Science Behind Bias

Research by Katherine B. Coffman, Christine L. Exley, and Muriel Niederle in their paper “When Gender Discrimination is Not About Gender” provides insights into why men are often preferred over women for certain roles, even when qualifications are identical. Their findings suggest that:

  • Employers tend to believe that men will perform better in male-typed tasks, leading to biased hiring decisions.
  • There’s a tendency to favour candidates who share the same gender, reinforcing existing biases.

These findings were also reflected in a 2012 Yale University study that revealed that both male and female scientists were more likely to hire a male candidate over a female candidate with identical qualifications. Moreover, the male candidate was offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring. The reasons for these findings, which ultimately lead to a preference for men in certain professional contexts, can be attributed to bias in a number of areas, including:

  1. Stereotypes: Men are depicted as more competent and assertive, and women as more communal and nurturing. These stereotypes can influence how performance is evaluated, with men being seen as more naturally suited to leadership and technical roles.
  2. Perception: When men display assertive behaviour, it aligns with societal expectations, whereas when women display the same behaviour, it may be viewed negatively as being aggressive.
  3. Authority and Credibility Perception: Men are often perceived as more authoritative in professional settings, which can lead to their feedback and ideas being taken more seriously.
  4. Feedback Content and Deliver: Feedback for women often includes more critical remarks about their interpersonal skills and personality traits. This type of feedback can be less actionable and more subjective, making it harder for women to use it for professional growth.

Some of the findings from this study was reinforced in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology , which found that women often receive more critical feedback than men in performance reviews. Feedback for women frequently focused on their personality traits, while men’s feedback focused more on their skills and technical competencies.


Part 2: Unconscious Bias against Compliance and Legal Professionals:

How the research on Gender Bias Relates to our roles in Legal and Compliance?

Here is my hypothesis – Legal and Compliance professionals can also find themselves marginalized, not because of gender, but due to their job titles. The same biases that favour male voices can extend to undervaluing the contributions of Compliance officers and Legal advisors. This is, in my experience, for several reasons.

1. The Perceived Enforcer and Barriers to Execution

In our role as ‘protectors’ we have also typically been seen as ‘enforcers’ of rules and regulations. This can create a perception that we are obstacles to progress (“barriers to execution”) rather than enablers of business success. Understandably, even if this is a perception that is never talked about, this can lead to a lack of appreciation and respect for our work, as our contributions can often be viewed through a lens of restriction rather than value addition.

2. “Them versus Us” syndrome

Our work may be complex and specialized, requiring a deep understanding of regulations, risk management, and regulatory and industry expectations and standards. This specialization can create a barrier between other departments, fostering a “them versus us” mentality.

Colleagues in other areas may not fully understand or value the necessity of Legal and Compliance efforts. This can result in these teams being left out of strategic discussions and decision-making processes at the early stages of a project. When the Legal and Compliance teams come to ‘the table’ later on in a project, once decisions are already made, they can be seen as ‘scuppering’ the project or being a ‘barrier to progress’ if they raise concerns and risks.

3. Investigators

The nature of our work often involves dealing with negative outcomes, such as investigations, audits, and disciplinary actions. We therefore become associated with problems rather than solutions. This can overshadow our proactive contributions.

4. Growth versus Compliance

Organizational culture plays a significant role in the marginalization of legal and compliance functions. Even if unconsciously, the emphasis on growth and innovation can overshadow the importance of Legal and Compliance, which can be considered the opposite of growth. Without strong support from the top, our efforts can be seen as bureaucratic hurdles rather than essential components of sustainable and ethical business practices.

It is important to identify these challenges so that we can start to address them.

Strategies for Overcoming Bias and Marginalisation

“Just because you are a woman, don’t be afraid to raise your voice. By raising your voice, you can help others to be successful.” Indra Nooyi (Former CEO of PepsiCo).

The strategies for overcoming what I will term as ‘Unconscious Bias against Legal and Compliance Professionals’ are based on the same strategies that women have used for years. When putting these together, I also drew upon the intelligence of female leaders.

“Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on.” Serena Williams

“The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling.” Indra Nooyi

So, honing their inner wisdom, here are some strategies to combat unconscious bias, wherever it falls in your workplace using the oldest tricks in the book, communication, education and relationship building.

1. Communicate your value and seek feedback:

  • Often, we think that sharing stories of breaches, fines and mistakes will make people focus on the importance of our work. However, we know from numerous studies that people do not learn or get inspired by negativity but from positivity. So, if you have a success story, share it and share the value to the organisation.
  • Set up automated ways for departments outside of your team to voice concerns and suggestions about Legal and Compliance processes. For example, an anonymous survey using Microsoft Forms. Then respond to these concerns and suggestions.

2. Education

  • Provide regular training sessions and workshops that add value, demystify your speciality and highlight your value and speciality.
  • Conduct interactive ‘drop in’ sessions that allow non-Legal/Compliance teams to engage with issues hands-on and educate you about their business.

3. Build Relationships:

  • Find out what matters to key stakeholders and help them solve problems that are ‘front of their mind’. Even better, find a way to integrate your program or project with their objectives. For example, if you have a new third party due diligence process, focus on how this will help operations have better information about suppliers that they are working with to ensure better operational outcomes rather than compliance records.
  • Integrate Legal, Ethics and Compliance goals into broader organizational culture by creating cross-functional multi-disciplinary teams. This has been a game changer in my work. Instead of Legal and Compliance advising as a siloed activity, the advice is coordinated with all key stakeholders’ objectives and feedback is obtained in real time by everyone involved, rather than Legal and Compliance being seen as something to deal with separately.
  • Establish mentorship programs with other teams by more senior members of your team to support mutual respect and collaboration.

The Postframe

Our role in-house in Legal, Ethics and Compliance is so much more than interpreting legal and compliance requirements and implementing them across our organisations. We also need to ensure that we, and our program, are heard, respected, and valued.

The research on workplace gender discrimination provides valuable insights that can be directly applied to the challenges faced in our roles as Legal and Compliance in-house professionals. Recognizing the subtle and unconscious reasons that can get in the way of our messages is key to effectively navigating and influencing our workplace environments.

What do you think? DM me on LinkedIn or comment.

Nicole, Founder Untold Compliance, Co-host of The Eight Mindsets Podcast

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