development, leadership, Women

Intelligent Women may have a Disadvantage – Is there more to the glass ceiling?

In the last weeks, inside my small world, there has been a pronounced focus on diversity and inclusion. As a woman, I become concerned that there will be a forced advancement of diverse candidates that lack merit.  Meritless promotions do not further the cause. To be clear,  I believe there are plenty of diverse candidates who merit advancement, but forced initiatives can undermine the process.

While pondering these thoughts, I decided to investigate the current prevalence of biases against diverse candidates. My investigation found a surprising bias. This bias linked to women and the belief that they are less intelligent. An article in Pacific Standard stated, “The notion that men are intellectually superior to women remains lodged in our collective psyches. New research offers evidence that this bias has pernicious real-world consequences. A new study finds that women are less likely to be referred to employers as promising potential hires if the position in question is said to require a particularly smart person.” (1)  This belief or bias may be at the root of some of the gaps in hiring. While we think we have and can overcome this bias, it remains in our sub-conscience.

According to recent studies, the biases that girls are smarter than boys start at age 6. (3)  The study doesn’t mean that boys are indeed smarter, but it says that our biases, in general, lead us to believe boys are intelligent. If we have a preference at such a young age, then this culture and belief will exist for many years to come.  Reprogramming our bias requires conscious awareness and focused attention. If not aware and focused, these biases take over when making hiring decisions for roles that need a high-capacity for intelligence.

What can we do to remove the bias? Maybe we can allow other women to make the decision. Surely women will be an independent party as it applies to other women.  In the latest studies, both Men and Women show biases when referring candidates in experiments which relate to intelligence. (2)  Involving other women does improve the possibilities of intelligence bias dampening, but studies show that even women carry a bias.  Maybe we can apply artificial intelligence (AI) because hypothetically a computer is impartial.  AI uses our behaviors of today and the data from the past. AI created by the Edinburgh office of the Amazon team, while trying to sort CVs, found to take on a bias against women. “… it quickly taught itself to prefer male candidates over female ones, according to members of the team who spoke to Reuters.” (4)  Luckily the Amazon tool was ditched.  Neither adding women to the process nor adding AI to the process took biases out of the equation.  So, what next?

While I haven’t created a vision of “Consider This” wisdom, I do think that we should act in a couple of simple ways:
•How do we stop the cycle with our youth? – Consider growing a new reality for our children.  Teach about gender-neutral occupations.  In 2008 an India study which was executed by Northwestern faculty showed that exposure to female leaders improved the chances of future female leaders. (5)  Exposing our children to female leaders could encourage a different future.
•How do we moderate the biases of our adults? – Consider writing job descriptions with a different frame of reference which doesn’t use the trigger word (intelligence.)  Also, “Companies can use public endorsements when non-traditional genders are working in positions and performance-based evaluations instead of subjective evaluations to even the playing field.”  (6)

Consider these thoughts, and please give feedback and comments.  An interactive audience enables learning for us all.


(1) Tom Jacobs, “We still believe genius is male – and women’s careers are suffering as a result,” Pacific Standard, 10 December 2018,

(2) New York University. “New study finds bias against women and girls when intellectual ability is sought.” ScienceDaily, 10 December 2018.

Reference: Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian. Gender of nominees for jobs requiring brilliance vs. dedication. American Psychologist, 2018

(3) Hansa Bhargava, “Do Girls Think Boys are Smarter?” Web MD, January 31, 2017,

(4) James Cook, “Amazon scraps ‘sexist AI’ recruiting tool that showed bias against women,” Technology Intelligence, October 10, 2018,



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