Laura Doering, University of Toronto – Sexism and Ambiguity

Gender discrimination isn’t always black and white.

Laura Doering, associate professor of strategic management and sociology at the University of Toronto, examines why some experiences may lead to ambiguity – and what to do about it.

Laura Doering is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and is cross-appointed in the Department of Sociology. As an economic sociologist, she examines how interactions and social psychological processes shape outcomes for households, organizations, and markets. Her research has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Sociological Science, Sociology of Development, and Journal of Business Venturing. Professor Doering’s research and writing has appeared in The New York Times, BBC News, The Globe and Mail, Salon, and other outlets.

Sexism and Ambiguity

News headlines are often dominated by cases of overt gender discrimination at work. But women often have subtler, more opaque experiences: ambiguous incidents that might have been gender discrimination, but could have been misunderstandings.

Consider Kelly, a seasoned marketing manager passed over for a promotion in favor of her junior colleague, Mark. She wonders whether Mark’s success stems from genuine merit or if gender played a role in the decision.

Her quandary isn’t unique. We interviewed women who described experiencing confusion and frustration in response to ambiguous incidents. Their stories ranged from daily microaggressions, like being ignored in meetings, to significant milestones, like missing out on promotions. In a survey, we found that 74% of women experienced an ambiguous incident in the past year, while only 64% said they’d faced clear-cut discrimination.

Ambiguous incidents also influence women’s behavior at work. Our experiments revealed that, when a situation is clearly discriminatory, women are more likely to speak to HR or consult with supervisors. This sort of action not only addresses the issue at hand but also sets the stage for organizational change.

When the same incident is ambiguous, women respond different—they speak more formally, work harder, and draw more attention to their achievements. This may help them in the short term, but it does little to catalyze the kind of systemic change necessary to foster gender equality.

So what leaders do to address ambiguous incidents? They can encourage women to share concerns confidentially, keeping in mind that some experiences are misunderstandings and others are genuine bias. They can also act as allies, speaking privately with the women affected, and asking if and how they’d like support. And as women share ambiguous incidents, leaders should look for recurring themes. A single event could be a simple misunderstanding, but a pattern signals systemic problems that require attention.