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The Impact of Gender Microaggressions on Team Performance in Drug Development

26 interviews conducted by Tufts CSDD found that gender-based microaggressions can negatively impact collaboration and affect retention of women employees.

Abstract

Women in drug development continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. Although various reasons have been given for this disparity, one possible explanation concerns gender-based microaggressions experienced by women in the workplace. To investigate this proposed cause of gender disparities in the drug development workforce, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development conducted 26 interviews among a diverse group of women professionals in drug development. These interviews focused on participants’ experience with microaggressions in the workplace and the effect of these microaggressions on teamwork and communication. The research team found that gender-based microaggressions in the drug development workplace can negatively impact collaboration among teams and can affect retention of women employees.

Introduction

Drug development is among the many areas within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) where women professionals continue to be underrepresented. Although the gender diversity in the drug development industry has improved over the years, women, and particularly women of color, are still noticeably underrepresented in leadership roles. Only 30% of all C-suite positions are filled by women, with a mere 4% of this group representing women of color (Berlin et al., 2019; Sandle, 2021). There have been many reasons put forth to explain this gap, including perceived role incongruity between women and male-typed jobs (Eagly & Karau, 2002), overt discrimination (McCord et al., 2017), and deeply entrenched systemic barriers (Hall et al., 2018). Another contributing factor to this gap are gender microaggressions, defined as subtle behaviors and comments that most often unintentionally demean or denigrate individuals based on their gender (Capodilupo et al., 2010). Though subtle, microaggressions are ubiquitous, occurring daily in the lives of women in the workplace. Though some argue that microaggressions are harmless, amounting to nothing more than minor insults (Lilienfeld, 2017), the emerging research on workplace gender microaggressions has demonstrated their deleterious effects on both cognitive and affective outcomes on women professionals (Kim & Meister, 2021; Meister et al., 2017).

Naturally, we wondered how gender microaggressions might manifest in drug development and what impact they might have on women professionals navigating this industry. To shed light on this topic, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development recently conducted a qualitative study to examine how gender microaggressions manifest among different work teams in drug development. We interviewed a total of 26 women across different areas, including sponsor organizations, contract research organizations (CROs), vendors, and academic research centers, representing a variety of different functions, levels, and work experience. Importantly, our sample was also racially diverse: 50% were women of color representing Asian, Black, Latina and multi-racial women, allowing us to capture nuanced ways gender microaggressions manifest for women of color.

Of the different types of microaggressions that we uncovered, devaluation emerged as a common form of slight that women encountered on a regular basis. Devaluation describes behaviors or comments that put down or diminish a woman’s input or contribution, the most common example being interrupting women while they speak or misattributing their work to a male colleague. These experiences were shared unanimously across the diverse sample of women we interviewed.

Our study’s racially diverse sample provided important nuance to how gender microaggressions manifest for women of color. Women of color not only had to contend with the usual forms of gender microaggressions, such as devaluation and misattribution of work, but also had to navigate an added layer of microaggressions that intersected their gender and racial identities. These included unsolicited comments that otherized different aspects of their racial and ethnic identity (i.e., colleagues repeatedly mispronouncing their names; being mistaken for another woman of color). Important distinctions also emerged within our racially diverse sample. Black women, in particular, shared how they felt otherized by belabored comments from colleagues about their hair that made them feel uncomfortably spotlighted. Assumptions of incompetence and lack of intelligence for Black and Latina women also emerged. Conversely, Asian women were assumed to be overly competent, which was often accompanied by the assumption that they do not need resources or help or that they are naturally experts in data analysis even if they were not.

The potential impact of gender microaggressions on team productivity

Regularly experiencing these types of slights were linked with cognitive depletion, emotional exhaustion, and behavioral changes, including overcompensation as well as withdrawal. Importantly, constantly navigating these dynamics was also associated with lowered productivity and team performance, stemming largely from lowered trust towards and a tendency to limit one’s interactions with the aggressor. Naturally, this can pose a challenge to team productivity and effectiveness, which we detail below.

Lowered trust towards one’s colleague can lead to decreased information sharing and communication, which are hallmarks of effective teams (De Jong et al., 2016). This is particularly worrisome within the context of drug development given the collaborative nature of many cross-functional teams whose success depends on effective communication and idea sharing.

Moreover, several of the behaviors that women encountered, such as interruptions or misattribution of their work were directly linked to lowered productivity. In one example, a project manager (PM) described a situation in which the Principal Investigator (PI) would constantly email her male colleague about her project. Repeated incidents such as this created redundancy and delays in the project, all of which could have been avoided had the PI reached out to the correct PM, in this case, the woman.

Such interactions that we have described so far may seem minor at first blush. However, when experienced on a regular basis at work among one’s colleagues, the psychological and emotional toll can be taxing. In fact, the growing research on workplace microaggressions has linked these interactions to emotional and cognitive exhaustion as women manage their emotions while they decipher the meaning and intent behind many of these often-unintentional slights that are committed unbeknownst by the aggressor (Holder et al., 2015; Kim & Meister, 2021). Though unintentional, these micro interactions have the potential to have macro effects if left unchecked. In fact, many of the women in our sample talked about their intent to leave the organization, and many of them had, at the time of the interview, recently left what they viewed as toxic and exclusionary teams and organizations. Losing talent is the ultimate cost to teams and organizations as it can result in a “brain drain” of diverse, high potential talent (Wernick et al., 2016).

What then can organizations do to address these all-too-common forms of team dynamics? The solution is creating an inclusive organizational culture where individuals, regardless of their background, feel welcomed and have the potential to develop and grow. However, creating such an environment is easier said than done. While many organizations have heeded the calls for more inclusive workplaces by organizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) panels, talks, and workshops, etc. such efforts will fall short if they are not accompanied by an intentional and systematic way of benchmarking progress. After all, how does one know there is a problem when one does not measure it? How does one know there is improvement if there are no metrics to track over time? While tracking personnel data, such as turnover statistics, is vital, such statistics would be well paired with antecedent indicators that can help predict and prevent the loss of diverse talent.

We propose measuring the occurrence of these dynamics within organizations and teams to identify areas that need resources related to training and dialoguing. We believe that microaggressions are best addressed through conversation and perspective-taking. The ability to measure and track these dynamics can serve organizations well as they can “get ahead of the problem.”

Conclusion

Cross collaboration is increasingly necessary for producing high quality science (Reardon, 2022). Microaggressions, however, can hinder team effectiveness by stifling communication, trust, and cohesion among teams. Further, these dynamics can signal exclusion, ultimately contributing qualified women to leave such organizations or quit the industry altogether in search of more inclusive environments. Thus, the ability to identify, measure, and benchmark these dynamics can help organizations take a more proactive approach to ensure that they are creating an inclusive environment where all individuals, regardless of their social identity, can thrive.

Jennifer Kim*, Tufts CSDD, and Emily Botto, Tufts CSDD

*Corresponding Author, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, Tufts University School of Medicine, 145 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02111. Jennifer_y.kim@tufts.edu

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