I was seven at my first outdoor adventure camp and the only girl in the bunch. Little did I know this was going to be a trend. The outdoors is still a predominantly male environment. This isn’t just counting the number of men in the room, it is a decidedly masculine environment. Throughout my youth, I prided myself on being “one of the boys.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a little black dress and heels as much as the next girl, but even a great black dress doesn’t make you feminine overnight.

As I got older, I struggled in my dating life because I didn’t know how to balance my feminine and masculine attributes. As much as it suited me to be one of the guys in the backcountry, most straight men aren’t actually attracted to one of the guys. Today, my husband still has to adapt as I swing the pendulum between needing to talk out my feelings and telling him to “just suck it up and get over it.” I don’t think I am an unusual woman in having this complex mix of traditionally male and female attitudes, but I never realized they would affect me as a physician.

The AAMC published a report in 2009 on “Unconscious Bias in Faculty and Leadership Recruitment” showing that both men and women evaluators unconsciously prefer men to women, whites over blacks and thin over fat. They also associate men with science and career while women are associated with the liberal arts and family. There are countless studies that have demonstrated changing the name on a CV to indicate gender will change the likelihood of hiring. In one study of applicants for tenure, a female name on the CV made them four times more likely to write concerns in the margins. Another study showed that when an orchestra “blinded” their auditions by concealing musicians behind a screen, the likelihood of hiring a female increased by 25%. By changing this practice, the female new hire rate at the orchestra increased by 30%.1

For years psychologists have worked to understand how we consciously and unconsciously process information. One of our great tools is stereotypes. Stereotypes are a part of how we organize the world and prejudices are the judgments we make based on these stereotypes. They are inextricably linked; one cannot exist without the other. Our prejudices can be either automatic/unconscious or controlled/conscious. Sometimes our conscious and unconscious are in alignment, but sometimes, they aren’t. When our automatic and unconscious attitudes contradict our conscious ones, they still sway our decision making.2 This is implicit bias. It is sneaky and dangerous because we don’t know it is happening. Consciously we think, “Women are equal to men and I treat everyone the same” while unconsciously our decision making reflects otherwise.

A complex web of bias is still blocking the way to equal female representation in leadership. There are three main stereotypes that have to be addressed.

  1. The traditional model of leadership is autocratic and associated with masculine characteristics.
  2. Women are associated with more feminine attributes, which are not masculine leadership
  3. If a woman displays masculine characteristics she is judged for not being feminine enough.3 It is a Catch 22; bias if you do and bias if you don’t. Despite this, we know that women are successful CEOs.

Eagly suggests that all the double standards and hoops a woman has to jump through to get to the top, makes for an extremely elite set of female leaders who have reached the C-Suite in comparison to their male counterparts. It may also be related to a change in the leadership landscape from preferring the masculine autocrat to “transformational leaders” who are more democratic and coach like. Eagly argues that this benefits women because the characteristics are more feminine.3 However, Shropshire argues that the stereotype of more feminine styles of leadership is not embraced with equal respect as the autocratic male. In her research she shows that female CEOs are more likely to experience shareholder activism. Shareholders bring 1.5 times the number of resolutions and want a more active role in governing the company when a female is CEO. Stock values generally drop immediately after a female is named CEO. Shareholders argue that the drop in the stock value justifies their involvement but the value drops long before she even has the opportunity to affect the company.   Shropshire believes bias against women leaders and women stereotyped as communal leaders is the cause of both.4

A group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to make an attempt to change implicit gender bias through a workshop. They did a case control study of 92 academic departments over two university campuses. Their workshop focused on increasing self-awareness, internal motivation and perception of the benefits of promoting gender equity as well as self-efficacy in doing so. Twenty-five percent of the departments who received the intervention reported an increase in actions to support gender equity when surveyed three months later. It is a small example, but it suggests increased awareness can help.

Implicit gender bias makes it harder for a woman to get the job, and harder for her to do the job. We can’t eliminate bias but there are things we can do to help lesson and improve its effect. To change our unconscious bias, we need to keep making people conscious that it is there. In this way we can change the effect of our implicit bias. Reading this is your first exercise in increasing bias awareness. Next, we need to change the stereotypes of what makes a good leader and what is inherently masculine or feminine. The masculine model that women have been trying to fit into may not be the best form of leadership. Lastly, we need to let women create their own leadership style and give them the respect to lead with it.

As for me, I will always embody a complicated mix of stereotypes. In the woods, I am one of the guys. With my husband, I am a little bit of everything. As a leader, I am no-nonsense, with high expectations, interested in other’s ideas and input, encouraging and not afraid to be the buck. I am working on my biases and I challenge you to do the same.


  1. Corrice, A. (2009). Unconscious Bias in Faculty and Leadership Recruitment : A Literature Review. Association of American Medical Colleges, Analysis in Brief, 9(2).
  2. Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 5–18.
  3. Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2003). The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence. Leadership Quarterly, 14(6), 807–834.
  4. Leoff, B. (2016) “Unfair to the ‘fairer’ sex? Female CEOs face more shareholder activism.”
  5. Carnes, M. et al. (2015). The Effect of an Intervention to Break the Gender Bias Habit for Faculty at One Institution. Academic Medicine, 90(2), 221–230.