Published on August 2nd, 2016 | by Nancy F. Clark0
What A Woman Needs To Know About Unconscious Gender Bias
By Christine Bailey—
For years, I resisted reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. As a time-starved working mother, I couldn’t stomach a book that told me I should strive to be a better leader, a better woman, and a better Mum. That was my perception of what the book was about.
I’m not alone. Just this week in the office I overheard three women talking about work/life challenges and one said, “It’s alright for Sheryl Sandberg, she can afford an army of staff to keep her home life running.”
With the book staring at me from the shelves of every airport bookshop, I eventually conceded that as the global co-lead of Connected Women at Cisco, I really should read it. Bam! I quickly realized that my bias against it was wrong. Rather than being a manifesto on women’s performance, the book makes a strong case for inclusion and diversity. As I read it, I found myself exclaiming at one ah-ha moment after another, particularly – and ironically – in the section of the book that addresses biases.
As Sandberg writes, “I’m not telling women to be like men. I’m telling us to evaluate what men and women do in the workforce and at home without the gender bias.”
An unconscious bias – including gender bias – is an ingrained belief
Unconscious biases are shaped by culture, family, and personal experience. They influence how we view and evaluate others. Yet, because they lurk below the surface, we rarely recognize that they inform our view of the world.
Case in point: Recently, after dinner in a restaurant, the waitress brought the bill and I put my credit card in the folder. When she returned with the card machine, she handed it to my male partner, assuming that “Dr. C. Bailey” was a man. This wasn’t a one-off – it has happened countless times with airlines, hotel reservations, and utility companies.
Biases are all around us, in both personal and professional settings
My personal experiences are amplified again and again by women leaders. In her brilliant essay entitled, “What My Uterus Can Teach You About Being a Tech Leader,” Facebook’s Margaret Gould Stewart chronicles the myriad and very public ways that women are undermined by unconscious biases. Stewart writes, “My uterus doesn’t have much to say on the matter of technology and how it can improve people’s lives, though my brain has quite a bit to offer. The same is true for all the other women who have leadership roles in the tech industry. So why is it that when women get up on stage at tech conferences, the conversation so often turns to child-rearing, pregnancy, and ‘work/life balance’?”
Biases are detrimental to working women
Bias bombardment holds professional women back in major ways. As The Wall Street Journal reports in “Gender Bias at Work Turns up in Feedback,” new research shows that men and women are assessed in radically different manners on the job due to unconscious biases. The article features Caroline Simard, director of research at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, who explains that our hidden biases can ultimately lead to “cumulative disadvantage over a woman’s career over time, resulting in lower access to key leadership positions and stretch assignments, advancement, and pay.”
Women are guilty too
Men are not the only ones perpetuating gender biases. Let’s not forget that women were also delivering performance reviews mentioned in the article above. As Sandberg explains in an essay for The New York Times, “In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”
We women must grapple with our own double standards if we’re going to make progress. We also have to lead the charge in getting both men and women to own and overcome their gender biases. After all, as Mae West famously said, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”
So what can we do about it?
The key to eliminating unconscious bias in the workplace is acknowledging it and taking steps to correct it. Many companies – including Cisco – are starting down the path by training all employees – both men and women – on unconscious bias and how to recognize it. According to FutureWork Institute, a global diversity consultancy, as many as 20% of large U.S. employers with diversity programs now provide unconscious-bias training, up from 2% five years ago, and that figure could hit 50% in five years.
In addition to training, some companies are using technology to detect and eliminate unconscious bias. In an article entitled, “The Growing Business of Detecting Unconscious Bias,” Fast Company profiles several tech companies that aim to solve the bias problem. Startup Textio, which recently raised $1.5 million for its software, promises to spot gender bias in job descriptions and performance reviews. Kanjoya offers “emotion-aware language-processing technology” which detects nuances in opinions and attitudes expressed in conversations.
Psychologists argue that most people’s patterns and beliefs about success and money are set by age seven. If that’s also true about our unconscious biases, we’ve got a lot of “re-programming” to do! Becoming conscious of our biases is a great first step to challenging them. “Never judge a book by its cover!” is the biggest thing I’ve learned from Sheryl Sandberg. What have you learned about your biases? I’d love to hear your stories.
Photo by Jesse Loughborough