Overcoming unconscious gender bias in the workplace

If you are a woman, you have most likely been the victim of unconscious gender bias in the workplace. It’s the kind of behavior, perpetrated by men and women alike, that leaves you scratching your head, thinking, “I don’t think that was sexist, but it still feels wrong.” In many cases, unconscious gender bias is to blame for women’s impeded ability to rise to the top.

By stepping into the minds of those who engage in such bias, we can learn how to reshape their thinking.  Virginia Valian’s publication Why so slow? The Advancement of Women, published by MIT, explores the many ways in which people justify their unconscious gender bias:

People view themselves as fair and impartial:

Don’t you? There aren’t too many people out there who can look at themselves objectively and say, “Yep, I have biased and partial opinions,” even though everyone does. Most people view themselves as just and fair, and that can make it difficult to show others when they are participating in acts of unconscious bias.

People believe that advancement is merit based:

In my opinion, people want to believe this, and so they do. But truthfully, it backfires more often than not. People do not tend to look at authority figures and think, “that person absolutely deserves to be there,” but they do tend to look at people in lower positions and think “they must not deserve to be at the top.” This is a harmful approach and only feeds into the fallacy that if only you work hard enough, you’ll get everything that you deserve.

People admire the competence of some women, which seems to show that they are free of gender bias:

If you are a woman, then you are most likely familiar with the my wife/my mother/my daughter type of reasoning that precludes people (men) from viewing individual women outside the lens of their own personal relationships. “My mom worked hard for her family every day of her life, you can’t tell me that if another woman puts in equal effort, then she can maximize her potential!” Sure.

Some women, though the exception, make it to the top, appearing to demonstrate that evaluations are basically fair and that truly capable women can succeed:

This one is so annoying. “There’s no such thing as gender bias, just look at Oprah!” People who think like this are difficult to reach since they believe that one exception to the rule becomes the standard bearer.

It is difficult to remember that an exception is just that: an atypical event, and therefore actually evidence that the norm is different:

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book about this called Outliers, which actually explores this very phenomenon. Although Gladwell did not deign to include any women in his examples, it is still a powerful look at how the right place, right time factors into overall success. In this case, we can amend the adage to say: right place, right time, right sex, right skin color.

So now, we can easily see why and how unconscious bias thrives in the workplace. Through combinations of the above reasoning, people are not receptive to having their minds changed. However, that does not mean that women should stop trying. Below, I have listed some strategies to help women reshape the way that they handle unconscious gender bias:

Organizational Strategies:

This is the most straightforward approach. Engage in collective power to change policies and practices in organizations. You can work with HR or senior leadership to help make this happen. If there is a major issue of gender bias happening in your company or organization, then you can be the one to take a stand. Remember, there is power in numbers. If a group of women approaches HR with a plan to rectify a wrong, HR would be remiss to ignore it.

Interpersonal Strategies:

This is a delicate, nuanced, and at times, terrifying approach. What woman wants to be the one to call out her colleagues or superiors? Women in an upward trajectory often find themselves in a bind when it comes to combating unconscious bias, since it can earn her an undeserved nasty reputation. The key here (and you aren’t going to like it) is to be friendly as you challenge myths and stereotypes. It’s infuriating. Trust me, I get it. When I am being treated unfairly, all I want to do is walk away or begin aggressively name calling. But the truth is that with a friendly approach, you can actually guide someone toward changing their mind. If someone says something biased, counter with a, “why is that?” and make them explain themselves.

Beyond assuming the (unjust yet effective) attitude above, it is important for women to stand up for other women in the organization. When your colleagues do good work, praise them vocally. When a woman is being treated unfairly, go to your manager on her behalf. In doing so, you will find allies and connect through others with shared experience.

Personal Strategies:

First, it is important to develop key leadership traits including self-confidence, political savvy, and negotiation. Don’t be shy. Don’t feel like an imposter. Look at those in positions of leadership and take your cues from them. This is difficult, as many of us have internalized the very stereotypes that prevent women from reaching top positions, like refusing to stand up for ourselves for fear of being called “assertive”. Take a look within, determine which of these stereotypes you have internalized, and begin to undo them.

Unconscious bias happens all around us, all the time. Often, biased behaviors are the product of decades of social conditioning, and are difficult to undo. However, as women, we need to rise to the occasion and be aware of those opportunities that allow us to steer the ship in the right direction. It is only through having the courage to fundamentally change the thinking of others that we can hope to rise to positions of leadership and shift the paradigm.

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