Freelancer or CEO? Research Narrative founder Kerry Edelstein discusses unconscious gender bias and the language we use to describe female professionals.
When I first started Research Narrative, a young man at an entrepreneurship conference asked me, “So, you moderate focus groups?”
“I can, and I have,” I responded. “But no, I own the company. I hire people to moderate the focus groups. And we also do a lot of quantitative work.”
“So you’re a freelancer?” he asked.
“No, I run a company. I have a team, “ I responded.
He seemed flummoxed. I shared his confusion. How was what I said perplexing?
I’d forgotten about that conversation until recently, when another male at another conference asked me earnestly, “So, you’re like a freelance researcher?”
This time, I balked. I knew this man. Research Narrative had been hired by his previous employer. I had given a research-driven growth strategy presentation — with our Managing Director — to his executive team. He was not a stranger to me, or to my company’s work.
I’m the President of a successful firm. With employees, contractors, multiple lines of business, and many of America’s largest media companies as clients.
I am not, like, a freelance researcher. So six years into running Research Narrative, why do I still get that question?
When I first read about the John/Jennifer resume test a couple years ago, my heart shattered in a thousand pieces. If you haven’t yet read it, here’s your tl;dr summary:
Ouch. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; even resume templates tend to feature male names and avatars. But the degree of bias nonetheless took me by surprise.
A bit more due diligence indicated this wasn’t an isolated incident. UC Davis offers this unsettling summary of research on unconscious bias, which includes these jarring insights across an extensive library of research on the topic:
Perhaps the best test lab of unconscious gender bias is symphony orchestra auditions. An analysis at Harvard’s Kennedy School found that blind auditions increased the likelihood that a woman would advance to the next round by 11%. And in the final round – the round where people are selected for the orchestra (i.e. given the job), blind auditions increased selection of a woman by 30%.
I’ve long joked that I benefit from having a more gender-neutral first name. It’s not entirely a joke, in the sense that I not infrequently receive mail addressed to Mr. Kerry Edelstein. In the early years of derived gender data, Facebook and Google both concluded that I was a male. Uncle Kerry was a hit with the family. When it comes to resumes, I imagine that’s benefitted me throughout my career.
But when engaged in face-to-face interaction, I’m pretty clearly a woman. Once I meet someone in person, I’m subject to the unconscious gender bias they bring to the conversation.
It surfaces in a number of subtle ways.
Sometimes my company isn’t a good “fit.” (For a team of all men.)
Sometimes I’m asked to rewrite a proposal multiple times, each time to a level of hesitation about investing in the work that they identified as a priority to solicit from my firm.
And sometimes, despite owning a business and introducing people to our tremendous staff, I still hear myself referred to as a “freelancer” instead of “business owner” or “Founder” or “President.”
I don’t fault people for it; if the research on this topic has taught me anything, it’s that humans are simply fallible to unconscious bias. We don’t mean to be biased, we don’t want to be biased. But we are. And we only get past it by pointing it out to one another.
So if you find yourself face to face with a female business owner, and you find yourself referring to her as a freelancer, let this be a cautionary tale to change your choice of vocabulary and reframe your perspective. She’s not a “freelancer.” She’s a founder. She’s an executive. And she might be your next boss.
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