At least at one company, female client service representatives get lower scores from their clients even when they perform better than men and have more experience.
Larry Kim, founder of internet marketing company WordStream, recently analyzed about 300 responses from the company’s clients to a request to rate their level of satisfaction with their client service representative at his company on a scale of one to four. He found that all of the men on staff had above average scores, while all women had below average scores. “In fact, the lowest scoring male rep rated higher than the highest scoring female rep!” he wrote in a post about his findings.
He eventually calculated that his female marketers are undervalued by 21 percent, similar to the 19.7 percent gender pay gap for the industry.
These women are not being undervalued because they are producing worse results or have less experience, he found. After grading the performance of everyone’s accounts, the ones supported by female representatives had scores nine points higher, on average, than the male ones. One who had a nearly perfectly performing account got just a three out of four score from her client and was outscored by lower-preforming men. Kim also found that women were given lower scores across all levels of experience such that the least experienced man got a higher score than the most experienced woman. And the bias isn’t just coming from male clients: female clients actually had wider gender gaps in their satisfaction scores than male ones.
The locus of the problem seems to be in mediocre accounts, as the gender differences weren’t particularly wide for the accounts performing at the top or bottom. In the middle, “male client service managers more often than not received the benefit of the doubt,” Kim writes, “whereas female client service managers were less likely to get a pass.”
The findings don’t just present a problem in the medium term for the women getting lower scores, but in the long term for what that might mean for their careers. “How is this issue compounded by fewer promotions or raises if females are consistently underrated by clients?” Kim asks. “All of this bias, in the workplace and in the industry in general, has the potential to compound over time and seriously affect a woman’s ability to end up in higher-visibility, better-paying positions even when experience and performance warrant promotion.”
The sort of compound bias that Kim discovered in his own company could plague women in other sectors, but it can be hard to detect without the kind of analysis he conducted. There are many factors that go into the gender wage gap. Women often go part time or take time off to care for children or other family members. They also tend to be clustered in industries and occupations that pay less, overall. But even when a variety of factors are taken into account, economists are left with a portion that can’t be explained. It could very well be caused by bias in the form that WordStream workers experienced: getting lower marks for the same work as compared to male peers. In fact, the majority of discrimination today doesn’t play out in acts of hostility, but favorable treatment for certain privileged groups.
There are still plenty of women who experience overt sexism at work. The details of a lawsuit against the country’s largest jewelry chain document what that can look like. One in five women say they’ve been sexually harassed by a boss. More than one in ten say they’ve been denied a promotion or raise because of their gender. But other women may also be harmed by bias and not even know that’s what’s happening.