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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kate Webster

Proactive Steps When Gender Bias Backfires

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Written by Kate Webster, Founder, Breaking Through Barriers, and Elizabeth Ruske, CEO, Tiara International LLC. First in a series of articles in our “Women at Work” Applied Leadership Series.

There is a danger in quickly scanning Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s article, When Talking About Bias Backfires—the first in a series of four articles titled “Women at Work.” Awareness of gender bias alone, they contend, won’t solve the issue in the workplace and might, in fact, increase bias.

To heed their advice, if you are an organizational leader, you might stop talking about gender bias for fear that the discussion will increase stereotypes in your organization. You might even feel relief that now you have a credible reason to take this complicated and dreaded topic off of your to-do list.

However, if you are a talented woman in a leadership position, you might feel deflated and confused. Witnessing and hearing about gender biases in hiring practices, performance evaluations, and promotion decisions, you want increased awareness and practical solutions for change.

The authors conclude that in addition to awareness, gender bias needs to be decried as undesirable and unacceptable. Fair enough.

But, is that enough? In the absence of clear direction, the wrong conclusions might lead to a lack of action, which is not their intention. How, then, do we close the gap between awareness and acceptable gender practices so that women are not discriminated against, nor held back as leaders in the workplace?

Here are three strategies that offer practical solutions to help guide both individuals and organizations to move beyond a narrow view of awareness toward concrete change.

Expand and deal with the awareness issue. Both individuals and companies can rush through the awareness phase and neglect to articulate a clear, compelling and non-negotiable picture of the future. Awareness isn’t just doing a study or survey, sending out the report via email, saying it should be different, then moving on.

We have found that it is important to make sure that there is plenty of time and depth when raising awareness of gender bias. In fact, when we work with organizations that are trying to actually change to include women equitably in the pipeline and in leadership roles, an awareness phase can take at least 90 days. Not only does it include an anonymous survey, it also includes focus group dialogues, individual interviews, thoughtful debriefing and creative recommendations about what will really change paradigms.

Furthermore, helping women and men become more aware of how people are socialized from a young age to fit narrow boxes of what it means to be female or male can empower individuals to break out of the boxes and not perpetuate the stereotypes themselves. Individuals can then better address the negative impact these messages have on their self-worth and feelings of competence and confidence. One client’s comments echoed this sentiment: “By learning more about these gender norms in our society, I learned new ways to believe in myself and achieve a greater level of confidence in all the work that I do.”

Talk the language of business. Any organization drawing attention to gender bias can be stopped from prioritizing the work because it gets categorized as something we “should” do or as an initiative that “feels good”. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that addressing unconscious bias and gender stereotypes is a mission-critical, bottom-line imperative for many companies. In your organization, link the need to address this issue to business goals, the business’s strategic plan, and the future success of the business.

As a woman focused on your own career development as well as improving leadership development for women, it’s important to root your requests in business language. For example, a client of ours knew that she was underpaid compared to her male colleagues at her large company in the manufacturing industry. When she brought the issue up to her manager, she asked Human Resources to do research on salaries for her role and report on the male and female company salaries within the company compared to market. Not only did she get a raise, but so did all the other women in her department.

Women can help organizations act by being clear and direct in their communications and tying their ideas and requests to business strategy, mission, values and financials. By talking the talk of business, the company can focus on quantifiable business issues. Gender equity is a business issue, not an employee issue or a women’s issue.

Be competent and confident. Recent studies have highlighted a confidence gap between men and women wherein men were found to have more confidence and less fear of taking risks, while women were viewed to be more competent and consistent in accomplishing projects. With these perceptions, we can fall back into thinking: “Oh well, it’s too bad there are these biases and women aren’t advancing, but I guess that’s just the way it is.”

To move beyond these complacent ways of thinking, we need to be clear and direct in communication and body language. Recent studies have debated that women, more so than men, use filler and minimizing words that sabotage the strength of their messages. These “verbal diminishers” can include words or short phrases such as just, like, kinda, and sorta, along with questioning intonations and question tags at the ends of sentences, and unnecessary apologies. As we become more aware of when we use them, we can consciously choose to remove them or not. By so doing, women can build confidence from the inside out and appear both competent AND confident. As one client shared: “I loved learning that NO! is a complete sentence. When I use it at work, I’ll feel more empowered to speak up for myself.”

Bottom Line. One of our favorite things to do is to work with clients on making promises and clear requests. This is transformational.

What Grant and Sandberg tell us to do at the end of the article is to make a clear request. They showed how rates of stealing petrified wood were reduced when a sign to stop was changed from a generalized warning: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood,” to a clear request of “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park.”

For organizations, it’s the difference between stating to your managers, “Don’t let your biases do your hiring” changed to “Please include candidates who represent diversity in gender, race, age, industry and perspective for every open position.”

Awareness is positive and creates a powerful impetus for change when:

  • The awareness comes from a thoughtful, thorough process.

  • The current state is accepted and the future vision is clear.

  • The need for change is tied to a business case.

  • Clear requests are made.

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