We like people who are like us – that’s a human truth. It’s natural to gravitate toward those who are similar in gender, schooling, religion, what have you. The crux lies how we approach people who are different from us. And despite decades of progress for working women, gender bias has proven to be one of the toughest nuts to crack in corporate America.
The problem with bias – which is just a nice way of saying “discrimination” – is that it lies deep within our belief systems and takes shape in our everyday interactions. These “micro-aggressions” are a reality for two-thirds of working women, according to McKinsey. And they can be so subtle that you may not even notice them in others, much less yourself.
Here are some examples of gender bias I often see in my work with clients, and what you can do to address them.
1. THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM
What it looks like: Men generally feel more comfortable speaking up in meetings, especially when it comes to voicing contrary opinions. If you find yourself calling on or hearing from the same people again and again, you could be falling prey to gender bias.
Why it matters: If you only listen to the people who volunteer their opinions, you miss out on a diversity of perspectives. Seeking and respecting a breadth of viewpoints is key to diversity and inclusion – which can increase your innovation six-fold.
What you can do about it: Tap into that woman who has remained quiet. As a manager, coach her on how to speak up in the moment. Greet her opinions with curiosity and validation, so she knows they are welcome. If you sense any hesitation, invite her to share her feedback one-on-one, offline. You may even need to (privately) ask the talkative ones to let others have a turn.
2. GREAT EXPECTATIONS
What it looks like: When a female employee announces she is pregnant, what pops into your mind (after “congratulations!”)? You may start to calculate how much time she will need off for prenatal care and delivery – plus accommodations she may need as a new, and possibly nursing, mother. But if you don’t give men the same level of attention for pending fatherhood … that, my friend, is gender bias.
Why it matters: Supervisors are absolutely right to give new parents time and space to welcome their little one (bonus points if paid parental leave is already a company benefit!). But gender bias rears its ugly head when we perpetuate this double standard. Just as we shouldn’t punish female workers for their child-bearing years, we shouldn’t dismiss the needs of new fathers.
What you can do about it: Ask expectant parents – of both genders – about their plans. When parental leave policies are more balanced, everyone benefits. Even better, we chip away at the “parental penalty” that has dogged women’s careers for so long.
3. TOUTING “YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL”
What it looks like: Career, family, homeownership, social life, hobbies, fitness routines … if you strike the right work-life balance, it’s all within reach, right? Not so fast.
Why it matters: Consider for a moment that this construct is geared almost exclusively toward women. Case in point: When my children were younger and I traveled for work, I was often asked, “Who’s watching the kids?” Guess how many times my husband got the same question. Men are just as responsible for the household as their female partners. What’s more, someone who is single and childless may have personal demands that you can’t immediately see – say, an ailing parent or grandparent.
What you can do about it: Acknowledge that the modern, always-on lifestyle is hard for everyone, but for your female employees especially. Give your team a glimpse into how you strive for the same balance, such as coming in early so you can make it to your kid’s afternoon soccer game. Modeling the behaviors goes a long way – proof that we’re all human and doing the best we can.
4. FAILURE TO SPEAK UP
What it looks like: When someone makes a crass comment or joke about women (or any underrepresented group), you may be inclined to look the other way. After all, who wants to cause a scene?
Why it matters: These jokes simply aren’t funny. Every time inappropriate remarks go unchecked, gender bias becomes that much more ingrained in your company culture, not to mention society. As a manager, it’s your role to enforce company values (and I doubt “discrimination” is one of them).
What you can do about it: Implement a zero-tolerance policy. Nip it in the bud, each and every time offensive language and behavior happen in your presence. Doing so will not only set the tone for the company but also establish a model for others to follow.
We all have a responsibility to challenge the implicit assumptions behind gender bias. Start with yourself and your leadership peers – and create a firm foundation for true gender equality. There’s truly no better test for your diversity and inclusion initiative.
Shaara Roman is Founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a boutique management consulting firm that works at the intersection of people, strategy, and culture to optimize organizational performance. She is based in Arlington, Va. Follow Shaara @ShaaraRoman @SilvereneGroup