Opinion: We owe it to every girl and woman to stop being so blind to bias
Because of unconscious gender bias, female leaders like Hillary Clinton are called “shrill” instead of “vocal;” “calculated” instead of “strategic;” “cold” instead of “focused.” They are also called unlikeable for exhibiting the qualities for which we’ve always praised men: ambition, confidence, assertiveness.
And if a woman displays what society considers a “feminine” approach to leadership, then she isn’t seen as competent. It’s damned if you do, doomed if you don’t.
Because gender stereotypes are so ingrained, even the most progressive among us are guilty of unconsciously perpetuating bias. The issue is so pervasive, it’s coded into the technology we use every day. Summon Alexa, Siri, or Google (Homes) and your wish is literally her command. This reinforces the stereotypical belief that a woman’s role is to assist and teaches children as young as 2 that women are made to take orders—not give them.
These biases function as invisible barriers for women and are at the heart of the gender gap—which will take North America more than 151 years to close, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020.
I recently interviewed female leaders in industries from tech to publishing, sports to finance, about their experiences with unconscious gender bias, for Burns Group and Catalyst’s #BiasCorrect Campaign.
One theme rose to the top: How managers—both men and women—had said they were too opinionated and too vocal with their ideas, which coworkers found off-putting. They were told they were too ambitious and not “warm enough”—feedback that was less about their actual work ethic or output, and more how they behaved in the workplace.
“Can you imagine,” asked one leader, “being told your natural, normal way of being isn’t appropriate? Isn’t good enough? All of a sudden you start to lose all faith and credibility in yourself.”
How many women took this feedback to heart? How many amazing leaders, ideas and innovations have we lost?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to behavioral change. But we owe it to every girl and woman to stop being so blind to bias. Here, in observance Women’s History Month, are six ways you can start to #BiasCorrect:
Admit it: You are biased. We all are. And that’s ok. What is not ok is refusing to do something about it.
“But did she achieve it?”
It is mission-critical to stop giving women feedback on how they exist in the workplace and focus on what matters to the company’s bottom line: their results. Do the world a solid and scan your feedback for words that research proves are biased: cold, calculated, feisty, bitchy, emotional, dramatic, nagging; the list goes on.
If you see it, say it
Many offenders are well-meaning; don’t deny them a chance to learn. Point out bias in the moment or one-on-one afterward—even if the bias wasn’t aimed at you and no matter how awkward it feels.
Studies show that when women try to negotiate their salaries, they’re often punished and labeled as “difficult.” If a company isn’t confident in its ability to remove biases from the process, it should establish a “no-negotiating” policy and move to pay transparency. Equity drives equality.
Leverage the resources to help you learn how to quickly spot your own biases, such as the #BiasCorrect Slack Plug-In. Come up with ideas for new technologies that can help drive change.
Don’t believe everything you hear
From an early age, women are trained to be polite and respect authority figures. But if managers give you feedback that is more about style than performance, or that you believe is fundamentally untrue—question it. Ask managers to elaborate so they’re forced to consciously think about their words. If things do not improve, consider taking your talents somewhere else.