Gender Bias and Snap Judgments about CEOs

Ever since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, I’ve become acutely aware of how quickly I make snap judgments about people. No matter how fair and unbiased I think I am, I notice myself forming opinions about people before actually talking to them.

In fact, if you travel a lot, you may find yourself doing this while waiting around in airport lines: You try to guess a person’s profession or position based on how they look and act. It’s a game to pass the time. (Photo:

Physical appearances are important in business lives. All human beings are wired to make snap judgments about other people’s appearances. Primitive man used these skills to size up humans encountered on the plains of Africa: friend or foe?

Consider how we judge the faces of business leaders. One study asked 170 students to judge the personality traits and leadership skills of several dozen chief executive officers, not by assessing their companies’ performance or their decisions, but by simply looking at pictures of their faces for a few seconds.

The first study was of white male CEOs. They found a strong relationship between subjective judgments about the CEOs’ faces and their companies’ profitability. The study concluded that “the judgments of naive, uninformed college students (regardless of their gender) predicted the success of Fortune 1,000 companies from just the faces of their CEOs.

Next, they decided to test whether we perceive female CEOs differently. They found only 20 female CEOs on the list of Fortune 1,000 companies. Nevertheless, they asked the students to rank them on a 7-point scale for competence, dominance, likability, maturity, trustworthiness, and leadership, and to make their judgments as quickly as possible.

The results demonstrate the problem with snap judgments based on looks. In general, we judge attractive people more favorably. But when it comes to female leaders, the opposite is true. We find women who are more feminine-looking to be more attractive, but we find them to be worse leaders. Instead we view anyone with a masculine appearance, male or female, as a more competent leader, as more powerful, and as more likely to be a good financial provider.

This study was confirmed by looking at job applications in Israel where prospective employees submit photos with their resumes. Attractive men were twice as likely to be called back for an interview as plain men. Attractive women, however, were less likely to be called back than plain women.

This research is presented in an interesting book about decision-making: Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy. We like to believe everyone is gender-neutral in their decisions, just as we like to believe doctors wouldn’t favor whites over blacks.

The truth is we learn a lot about people just by glancing at their faces. We instantly spot who we prefer and who we don’t. When we unconsciously react with bias, we treat those less-preferred people unfairly, even without realizing it.

What’s been your experience? What’s your opinion on how we fall into gender or other biases without being aware?

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