The Salience Barrier

Salience is when a trait like gender becomes more prominent and a salience barrier is when the salience results in undesirable consequences. Imagine a female manager walking into her first staff meeting and it is a room full of men. Her gender has become salient. The men in the room will naturally change their behavior as a result. Some of the behavior change will have desirable consequences such as refraining from the use of offensive language during the meeting. However, some of the behavior change will have undesirable consequences such as not listening to what she has to say because she speaks tentatively which they interpret as low quality input not worth acknowledging.

The salience barrier addresses a question I have long pondered: How could I have been so clueless to, or even in denial of, gender barriers in my career until it was almost too late? The answer is that the salience barrier which gives rise to gender barriers doesn’t appear until later in your career. When you start your career, the workforce is about half men and half women so it is unusual to experience gender saliency. However, as you progress in your career, there are fewer women at higher levels in the organization so the experience of gender saliency becomes more common.

When you experience gender salience, the saliency bias comes into play. The saliency bias is the tendency to judge based on the salient trait (http://www.alleydog.com/Saliency%20Bias). In the case of gender salience, the tendency will be to judge the person based on gender norms. If the person does not behave consistent with their respective gender norms, then this is a red flag and we will tend to become wary of that person. You are not going to promote someone that gives you cause for concern. Often, if women behave the same way at higher levels of the organization, where gender saliency is more common for them, as they behaved at lower levels of the organization, where gender saliency was uncommon, then they will derail in their career because of saliency bias.

I like to think of gender as a continuum from 100% feminine at one end to 100% masculine at the other end. Our genes and our experiences determine where we fall on the gender spectrum. When we encounter a situation of gender salience, when gender differences are heightened, we put the “odd person out” on one end of the gender continuum and scrutinize their behavior through the lens of that gender’s societal norms. Imagine a meeting of women and then a man walks into the room to join the meeting. What are those women thinking? They are sensitive to signs that the man is going to try to dominate and take control of the meeting and just the slightest hint of that from the man will be interpreted as fulfilling your expectation of highly male dominant behavior.

Our genes and our experiences determine where we fall on the gender spectrum.

Valerie Patrick

Gender salience, when gender differences are heightened, can show up in many different ways. There is physical salience in which you are in a majority or minor position with regard to gender. There is behavioral salience when a person behaves in a way that is incongruous with their physical gender. There is the topic of discussion which can introduce gender salience (see http://web.stanford.edu). For example, a man bringing up a masculine topic of discussion in front of a woman and vice versa. There is also the way a person dresses that can introduce gender salience.

Gender salience that leads to saliency bias creates barriers for women in male-dominated organizational roles, typically the higher-level positions. Similarly, gender salience that leads to saliency bias creates barriers for men in female-dominated organizational roles. The trick is that the saliency bias in response to gender salience is natural human behavior that is often unintentional. It is only by being aware of the conditions that create gender salience that steps can be taken to avoid the saliency bias and, thereby, level the playing field to create a productive working environment despite the presence of gender salience.

Gender salience that leads to saliency bias creates barriers for women in male-dominated organizational roles….[and for] men in female-dominated organizational roles.

Valerie Patrick

It is one thing to be aware of the potential negative consequences of gender salience and quite another to have the desire to do something to address the workplace barriers that can result from gender salience. Gender salience that results in saliency bias creates barriers unfair to the victim. The barriers that result from gender salience at the high levels of organizations need to be removed in order to close the gender leadership gap (http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies). Research on group intelligence (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115212) and organizational performance (see http://fortune.com/2015/03/03/ , http://www.ddiworld.com/pdf, and http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/01/) shows that closing the gender leadership gap is in the best interest of the organization to improve performance. If you are interested in maximizing your organization’s performance, then you need to help address the workplace barriers that can result from gender salience.

By increasing our awareness of when gender salience is influencing our behavior, and by having the desire to minimize the undesirable consequences that can arise from gender saliency bias, we can take responsibility for our behaviors and increase our effectiveness. In order to do this, we need to acquire the knowledge and ability to respond constructively in gender salience situations. The good news is that behavioral scientists have ongoing research to figure out the tactics to address gender saliency bias. However, not everyone has the time or resources to stay current on this research. That is why Fulcrum Connection LLC has compiled these tactics in a new workshop called the Science of Success for Women and Men to help those interested improve their workplace performance and lead others to higher performance (https://fulcrumconnection.com). Fulcrum can bring this workshop to your organization or location, do a webinar or speech on this topic, and provide coaching on gender-smart leadership.

The gender differences that we all need to be wary of are the type of gender differences that come across as unexpected, surprising, or even shocking. This is when we are most susceptible to gender saliency bias or judgment from applying the lens of one extreme of the gender continuum. We can’t remove all gender salience from the workplace. However, we can increase our awareness of gender saliency and use proven tactics to minimize and remove the barriers that gender saliency can create.

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