It’s Not Just Unconscious Bias: Women in Technology versus the Malevolent Professional

Introduction: The Malevolent Professional

Over the course of our careers, many women in business or academic organizations have had to deal with what I am here labeling “Malevolent Professionals” (MPs). An MP may be one of your superiors or may be found among your trusted colleagues or even your direct reports. The exact mix of personality traits in an MP can vary significantly because Malevolent Professionals are defined by their attitude and behavior within an organization rather than by a single psychological type. They are not merely self-serving, manipulative, or made casually brutal by ambition—they take pleasure in hurting and harming others, particularly women. Their active, conscious malice and cruelty is why we term them malevolent. We have added the term “professional” because many of them have impressive credentials in their fields, and because many of them are also managers or team leaders—and in some cases senior executives. Unlike in manufacturing or in service occupations like chain-restaurant or retail, where sexism is typically overt and aggressive, office environments demand what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotion work”—the crafting and maintenance of a persona and emotional expression defined by the organization’s unwritten behavioral rules. MPs can thrive in such environments by manipulation that exploits these rules and the control of emotional expression they require.

Surprisingly, MPs can be male or female, though most are male. All MPs, though, share key characteristics in varying degrees with playground bullies, malignant narcissists, and disturbed sociopaths. They are clearly distinct from people who merely have unconscious gender bias, although taken together the behaviors of these two types create major barriers to the career progress of women. This is particularly true in the technology business space, where gender disparity remains high to this day and the field is rife with MPs. The “Me Too” movement has empowered more women to speak out about the ways they are mistreated and held back in business and institutional settings. As a result, new cases of malevolent (almost always male) discrimination against, harassment of, and undermining of women become public in both established and newer tech-based companies almost every month.

Though, as we have just pointed out, not all or even most men (or again, some “traditional” women) with a more or less unconscious bias against women as achievers are MPs, they set the stage for MPs. Accordingly, the first part of this essay will explore the context in which workplace discrimination, suppression, and emotional abuse take place—the soil from which they grow. Biases are introduced early through socialization and schooling and are manifested later in every aspect of business and professional life: talent acquisition and development; research publication, promotion, and investment; and finally, in large pay disparities.

In this article we will first touch upon each area mentioned above before exploring the behaviors of Malevolent Professionals and the detrimental impact they have on women’s progress in the technology space. We conclude with some practical ways to handle this type of conflict.

Part 2 of this article series will discuss research studies that show how early socialization and schooling shaped the current position of women in business.

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