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Bias Against Women - How You Can Help

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

"I don't get a good vibe off of her."

I was talking with a man who normally reaches conclusions about people based on their individual traits. He does not customarily lump people into categories and he doesn't buy into common stereotypes. I had asked him his opinion on whether the low public estimation of a particular female politician was due to her being a woman or if she truly lacked the qualifications for her role.

His answer surprised me. I expected him to be a bit more detailed in his analysis or to offer evidence of some shortcomings. When he responded as he did, I had to wonder about his vague comment. Was there some hidden or unconscious bias at work?

Women and Judgment

Women are often judged by different criteria than men in the same job. You can scroll through a news feed to get a glimpse of the disparity. You'll likely see reporting on men for their professional actions. For women, the coverage is often about what they're wearing, their hairstyle, or some aspect of their personality. The media punishes women who don't behave or look as expected with negative coverage, especially when the women aren't judged to have traditionally positive female characteristics or to have too many traditionally male traits.

An article on Lean In describes a "Likeability Penalty." You’ve likely heard that success is looked at differently, and competence is judged differently, for men and women. Successful men are found to be likable by both other men and by women; the opposite is true for women.

This isn’t just anecdotal. The author points to a Columbia Business School study in which groups of students were shown a case study on a venture capitalist with only the name changed. The students who read the case study with the male name found the study subject "likable." The students who looked at the study with a female name declared the subject to be “selfish and not ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for.’”

This is, sadly, something I've experienced firsthand. In a past job, credit was given to a male colleague for my achievements while his foibles were attributed to me by his powerful allies in the C-suite. I’ve also had plenty of experience with men at work taking credit for my accomplishments, such as a boss replacing my name with his on a finished work product and another who would tell me in one-to-ones why my ideas weren’t workable and then take them to his manager as his own.

Hidden and Not-So-Hidden Bias

Bias against women can have material ill effects on individuals with loss of income and stalled career progression as unwanted byproducts. Data highlights how women were disproportionately affected by pandemic era layoffs. Despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up only 26% of STEM workers, data compiled by WomenTech Network shows that women make up 69.2% of the recently laid off in tech. According to this CNBC article, 55% of the jobs lost just in April of 2020 were held by women.

There is also concern around new technologies and how they may develop without proper representation from women. MSNBC quotes the Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, Bhaskar Chakravorti, “It is really important to have an AI workforce that is representative of the wider population” to avoid bias in the algorithm. “The fact that women are being disproportionately let go…has an impact on the quality of the AI product.”

Tech in general, it’s common knowledge, has continuing difficulties regarding gender inequality and even discrimination. Another product of all the recent layoffs is that many companies have cut back on roles in DEI (diversity equity and inclusion), resulting in a dearth of champions of equality.

I read an article from NPR about how the Grace Hopper Celebration held recently in Orlando “turned into yet another symbol of the [tech] industry’s gender imbalance after self-identifying men showed up in droves.” The conference is intended to be a safe space career expo mainly for self-identifying women and nonbinary tech workers but instead became yet another space for underrepresented groups to be forced to compete with a dominant group in tech. It was disheartening to read that “some of the attendees had lied about their gender identity on their conference registrations” to be part of the gathering.

What Leaders Can Do

Be Aware of Implicit Bias

Read my piece on Medium, Lessons in Leadership from a Rottie Chapter 3: Implicit Bias (also condensed into a blog post on my website here). Some advice from that article includes the following:

-It’s important for leaders to increase your self-awareness to recognize when unconscious bias might be influencing your decisions of who stays and who goes, who gets promoted and who doesn’t, who has the prime opportunities and who has the drudgery assigned to them.

-Educate yourself. Becoming cognizant of the biases against people who do not self-identify as men, and what biases you may hold unintentionally, can make you more openminded in staffing decisions.

-Let empathy lead you. If you can imagine how damaging it can be to have your abilities and skills questioned simply because of your gender identity, then you can start to be part of solving the equality puzzle.

Use Your Words

Looking at the aforementioned Columbia study, it's evident that we tend to use different language to describe men and women in the same role. We can all use some checks and balances on our descriptors at times, so it’s important to check ourselves.

Speak up when you hear biased language. That is an excellent tool to promote equality. You don’t have to call someone out, but a polite question to inquire about the reasons for their views may be all that is required to make people think.

Acknowledge Women's Contributions

The article on Lean In lists "Give Women Credit" as a way to help promote equality in the workplace. It's important that women have their accomplishments attributed to them and not to others. Also, since women are likely to credit external factors for their successes, you can make it clear that a woman's accomplishments were due to her skills.

Being aware of the need for women to get credit for their contributions will help you, and them, envision promotions and plum assignments in their future.

Onward to a Better Future

There are many ways that you can support the women in your workplace. Being cognizant of implicit bias, speaking out, and acknowledging women's achievements are just a few. But it's a great start. Your awareness is the key first step to help the women you work with to a professional future that's fair.

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