By Aliki Pappas Weakland
Not long ago, merely uttering the phrase gender bias would elicit a healthy dose of eye rolls and sneers. Most organizations didn’t recognize gender bias as a legitimate workplace complaint, and women were reluctant to call it out for fear of having their ideas and perspectives further marginalized. When it was raised, the default response by management was typically to point to the percentage of women employed as proof enough that there was no problem (e.g., seventy percent of our staff are women). When confronted with the dearth of women in leadership positions, a pocketful of reasons would come tumbling out, including not having enough qualified female candidates or the challenge of women balancing work and home commitments. The message rang loud and clear: women weren’t competitive enough, but it had nothing to do with bias. While that may have been the message, it wasn’t the reality.
Gender bias against women is deeply embedded in the culture of organizations in every sector—from private industry, to civic and governmental organizations, to institutions of higher learning, and beyond. Though the magnitude of bias may differ among groups, we can find evidence of it in day-to-day behaviors and decisions everywhere. Gender bias can be overt (rearing its serpent-like fangs in statements about how women are emotional, are shallow, or like to shop), but more often takes the form of implicit bias (underlying attitudes, beliefs, or stereotypes that subconsciously influence our understanding, actions, and decisions). With implicit gender bias, a person may not realize they are acting or speaking with bias (they don’t see the serpent in the mirror), and women may not realize how their own biases influence the way they interpret these actions.
Organizational culture also plays a role in perpetuating gender bias. The actions and directives of leadership set the cultural tone, convey what is and is not acceptable, and signal whether change can happen. Gender bias is deep-seated in workplace culture and often goes unnoticed, negatively impacting women. Women’s professional advancement and perceived value are hindered by the pervasiveness of this bias. So, if gender bias exists everywhere, is embedded in workplace norms, and is often deployed subconsciously, can anything be done to stem the tide in a meaningful way? In a word, yes. We can effect change by focusing on organizational practices and our own behavior.
Peeling away the layers of bias in organizational practices provides concrete markers of gender bias in the workplace and a starting point to effect change. Many organizations are actively examining and modifying hiring and advancement practices to counter gender bias. These actions are necessary, but modifying operating procedures can take us only so far toward gender neutrality. To reach sustained, valued, effective outcomes, we need to address the subtle undertones residing in interpersonal relations that foster and perpetuate gender bias at work. These subtleties hide in the language we use, roam freely in our interactions with others, and bounce around team dynamics. Left unexamined and unchecked, gender bias will derail confidence and opportunity.
So, what specific actions can we take to be agents of change?
- Understand yourself. Gender bias is not gender-specific. If we don’t deconstruct our own biases, we can’t possibly be effective catalysts for change. Spend time discovering what biases you hold and how you might be perpetuating gender stereotypes. Observe your interactions with women and men at work. Do you challenge women more than men? Around whom are you less vocal? Whom do you consider to be better leaders?
- Listen to everyone and everything. There are few greater tools than our ears. What phrases do you use without thought? What do they mean? Do they perpetuate gender stereotypes? How do you describe the behavior of women and men at work? Do you diminish your expertise and contributions with comments like I’m not sure, but or I could be wrong here…?
- Support women’s efforts to break free of gender stereotypes. Consider what conscious actions must stem directly from you to change how women are perceived. Observe the dynamics in team settings. Do women speak as much as men? Do people tend to agree more with men while countering ideas that come from women?
- Develop a portfolio of strategies. Guide situations where gender bias is evident and seek clarity when ambiguity is apparent. Tension is present in every workplace, and emotions can run wild when we witness or are the recipients of gendered comments. How you handle these situations is an important part of any change strategy. You can’t change everyone’s biases, but you can control your reactions to them.
We are on the crest of a wave that can erode centuries of gender discrimination, mistreatment, and oppression and help reshape the workplace for generations to come. Gender bias can no longer be ignored and, thanks to the energy and visibility of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the collective voice of women and those who support us is booming loudly. Today, we hear a crescendo of voices rising above and demanding change. Today, we commit to the promise of progress amidst a swell of positive actions. Today, we take conscious leaps to be fierce catalysts for change to unseat gender bias in the workplace. The only path on which to travel leads us forward. Let’s get to work!