Gender bias is alive and well in 2020 – and how you can be an ally and interrupt it

Gender bias is much more subtle today than the blatant bias we used to hear and see in the workplace 20 years ago.  Yet, what we find is that bias is still there, it is just not as overt as it once was.  It is unconscious.  It is thought, not shared publicly.  

Gender bias defined

A form of unconscious bias that is often unintentional, subtle and unconscious thought that happens to most people much of the time, specifically about attitudes and stereotypes we develop based on gender.

It is reported that 95% of people experience gender bias.  Yet, we are likely not even aware of our biases.  This makes it harder to detect.  To understand it better, it helps to break down conscious vs. unconscious bias.  It looks something like this:

Conscious bias:

  • “I do not like to work with women.”
  • “Women are not fit to do this job.”
  • “That is a woman’s job, men do not do that.”

Unconscious bias:

  • “She does not want to be promoted; she just had a child.”
  • “We have to watch her travel schedule; she cannot travel too much.”
  • “We’re going golfing, she would not be interested.”

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What is interesting is when I share the conscious bias statements, most agree that they are clearly wrong.  The bias is clear.  Yet, with the second set of statements, women and men alike struggle to see the bias.  Often, we have thought these things ourselves.  

I know as a strong supporter of women in leadership, I have thought these statements myself.  It is unconscious because of the assumptions in your thought process.  Often our assumptions are false, but our brains love to make these assumptions.

Our brains love assumptions

Our brains conserve energy.  To be efficient with energy, our brain often goes on autopilot.  Have you ever been driving to the grocery store and somehow ended up at your office?  That is because our brains are trained to recognize patterns, and then make an assumption based on a past experience or association, then act.  

This happens quickly.  The more energy the brain conserves, the more it has for those “fight” or “flight” survival moments.  That is our primitive brain’s way of protecting our very survival.  Something that was quite handy when living in the wild, yet not as helpful in today’s modern workplace.

Assumptions guide our unconscious thinking.  To test your own assumptions, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I know that is true?
  • Based on what?
  • If she/he were a man/woman would I believe that? (see #flipittotestit on Twitter)

These can help you address unconscious bias in the moment, and trigger your brain to exit autopilot and enter the conscious mindset.  By testing your assumptions, you can improve your own unconscious bias.

How unconscious bias affects gender today

According to Joan C. Williams’ What Works for Women at Work, there are four key unconscious biases that hold women back today:

  • The maternal wall – If she has another baby, she won’t want the promotion.
  • The tightrope – She’s so aggressive, she needs to tone it down or people will think she is a bitch.
  • Prove it again – She did it once, but can she really do it again? Maybe it was a fluke.
  • Tug of war – There are only so many seats for women at the table. I don’t want them stealing attention from me.

These biases are alive and well inside organizations today.  While they are more prevalent in male-dominated organizations, I hear about them all the time in all organizations.  In fact, I just heard a great story from a leader highlighting his team’s unconscious bias and how he challenged them in the moment.  He asked each of his direct reports for their high potential employee lists, and all of them responded with all white men.  

He replied by acknowledging their selections, and challenged with, “I cannot accept these candidates; they are not representative of the population of our team.  Try again.”  I bet his team thinks twice the next time they evaluate their talent.  By challenging them, he is adjusting their assumptions and future behaviors.

How do you close the gap on bias?

Up your unconscious bias game

First, you have to be aware of your own bias.  An excellent free assessment is available through Harvard here.  We all have bias.  As a student of this work, I have my own bias.  Be a part of their research and assess your own bias.  Then, armed with this data, seek out areas where you can challenge your assumptions.  Ask yourself the questions above in the moment, and call out others when they make decisions based on assumptions.  In fact, I am certified in unconscious bias with the Cultural Intelligence Center.  These tools help organizations shift the assumption-based thinking to create positive change for diversity and inclusion.

Ensure meetings are inclusive for all genders

Meetings are a representation of workplace inclusion.  Women are far more likely to experience micro-aggressions like bropropriations including interruptions, mansplaining, and idea stealing from their male counterparts.  These are often subtle, yet impactful messages that women are not heard, seen, or feel that they belong in the meeting.  Often, women learn to hold back, stay silent, and take on supportive roles when these behaviors accumulate over time.  It is death by 1,000 cuts.

Instead, have a call in culture where people are educated on these micro-aggressions and bropropriations, and have go-to language to call out these unhelpful behaviors.  Some simple phrases to be an ally for women might be:

  • “Let’s ask her what she thinks…”
  • “What perspective are we missing in this meeting…”
  • “Help me understand what you meant when you said…”

Now more than ever, women need men as allies.  At a time when 60% of men feel uncomfortable working alone with women, is the precise time we need men to engage in the gender bias conversation.  Being an ally requires bravery and courage and you do not have to do it alone.  

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