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Organizational Behavior | Expert Opinion

What the “Barbie” Oscar Snubs Reveal About Sexism Today

How organizations can ensure women get the credit for their contributions.

Source: From Barbie (2023)/Warner Bros.

Mikki Hebl and Eden King are the authors of Working Together: Practicing the Science of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

How organizations can ensure women get the credit for their contributions.

  • Hollywood dynamics reflect broader, persistent gender inequities at work.
  • Social science evidence confirms that women get less credit than men for shared success.
  • Reducing ambiguity and clarifying individual contributions can help reduce bias.

The biggest debut movie for a female director — “Barbie”— earned $1.45 billion worldwide and had audiences talking about sexism in the summer of 2023. We believe there is both irony and sexism underlying the fact that Ken (Ryan Gosling) received an individual Oscar nomination while the director (Greta Gerwig) and Barbie (Margot Robbie) did not. NPR asked whether the other nominations for the movie (e.g., Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for America Ferrara) were “Kenough” and the New York Times called it a “bitterly ironic” snub.

Adding to the crazy was that when we mentioned this detail to our male colleague (who admittedly hadn’t seen the film), he cited the possibility that maybe Margot was hired for her looks and perhaps wasn’t really a very good actress. Wow.

Showering accolades for Ken’s achievements while overlooking Barbie’s is a familiar experience for many women at work. Evidence from a set of three studies confirms that when men and women’s collaborative work is evaluated, men get the credit for success.

In the first experiment, research participants learned about either the individual or joint performance of two fake employees who were pictured as male and female. When the performance was described as “joint” or collaborative, the female employee was rated as less competent, less influential, and as less of a leader than the male employee.

These results were confirmed in two follow-up experiments; women were rated as less competent and influential than men unless there was clear information about individual contributions or previous outstanding performance. Together, these findings suggest that stereotypes about men and women’s competence lead to assumptions that men should be credited with joint successes. This means that evaluations of women may be harmed and those of men helped by their collaborative efforts.

The findings also point to a potential strategy for overcoming this kind of bias: clarifying individual contributions. Trying to interpret who is responsible for team success is a difficult and ambiguous task inherently vulnerable to bias. If teams, leaders, or organizations instead provide clear information about individual contributions, all members might receive the credit they deserve.

Both the “Barbie” movie and the Oscar aftermath reflect the realities of sexism that pervade modern life. The World Economic Forum indicated that gender parity, in terms of workforce participation, was recently the worst in decades (only 50 percent of women participated in paid labor in 2022, compared to 80 percent of men ). This lack of parity is exacerbated among workplace leaders; worldwide, only 39 percent of workforce leaders and about 23 percent of political leaders are women. And even when they earn such roles, women tend to congregate in jobs with lower pay and prestige than men.

Clarifying individual contributions for team success may be a first step toward creating better and more equitable opportunities for everyone, exemplifying the ideals of working together to practice the science of DEI.

Mikki Hebl is a Professor of Psychology and Management – Organizational Behavior (by courtesy) at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

Eden King is a Professor of Psychology – Organizational Behavior (by courtesy) at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

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