Business gender bias in business

Published on March 22nd, 2016 | by Nancy F. Clark


Gender Bias And How To Recognize And Navigate Warning Signs

By Caren Merrick—

Every woman at work has felt the sting of gender bias. Many forward-thinking companies like Facebook, Google, and the multimedia financial services company, The Motley Fool, have launched programs to help women and men recognize and navigate unconscious bias. Yet, this type of program is far from mainstream in business.

Most women are on their own in recognizing and navigating it.

Based on my experiences as a woman with a 20-year career in the male-dominated technology industry, I truly believe that a lot of gender bias is unconscious. Most people are not intentionally dismissing or diminishing women’s contributions and potential.

And, unconscious bias originates with women, too — regardless of age, or other demographic identifiers.

The good news is, there are steps that all of us can take to recognize and navigate it in our workplace.

In my role as a CEO and as a board member of businesses and enterprises overseeing combined assets of $10B, I experience less gender bias than at any time in my career, which may be a function of having risen through the ranks. That said, unfortunately, it has not completely disappeared in my wider interactions.

In fact, someone recently assumed that my newest business was my husband’s, not mine! We must make more progress.

Based on my experiences, below are six early warning signs of gender bias with suggestions for how to navigate. These will seem all too familiar to women at every age and stage in their careers.

You make a good point in a meeting that’s unacknowledged, but a man makes the same comment and it is singled out.

Early in my career, it didn’t bother me because I didn’t have the confidence of my convictions and I shrunk back. According to Harvard Business Review this is common. As I progressed in my career, and it continued to happen, I thought it was a result of a lack of strong communication skills on my part. Perhaps I had not been clear. I finally realized that often, this was not the case.


I learned that when this happens, it’s important to call it out, graciously. In meetings where a man was credited with something I had said previously, I’d say, “as I pointed out and Ben agreed, we should do xyz.” I was clear, not apologetic, and used a collaborative, not accusing, tone. Sooner or later, my colleagues got the message.

You can also do this for another woman when you are in a meeting and a man gets credit for your colleague’s idea. You can say, “Jane’s idea was fantastic, and I’m glad we’re considering it,” or, “I’m glad you’ve suggested an additional idea.” Be gracious and low-key, not defensive, because most people are not aware they are discounting your female colleague.

You work on a team with men, and they receive more accolades or promotions than you.

A recent Harvard study revealed that women get less credit when working on teams with men. Women do better when they work alone or on teams with other women.

Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard, studied economists to see how teaming up with others impacts the prospects of receiving a promotion. She wanted to know if there is a difference between the rate of promotion for men and women when they work on teams. She discovered that when women coauthored papers with men, that fewer women received promotions.

“Women essentially experience a collaboration penalty, which is most pronounced when women coauthor with men and less pronounced the more female coauthors there are on a paper. Men, however, are not penalized at all for collaborating.”

A variation on a theme happens when women collaborate on teams in businesses, educational institutions, nonprofits, and government professions.


When you are working on a team, be assertive and take initiative, and take credit on behalf of the team. A recent study by the Academy of Management Journal finds that, “far from being penalized for assertive, take-charge initiatives on the team’s behalf, women get more credit for leadership than men do for undertaking them.” 

This means speaking up – and for some, may mean stepping out of your comfort zone. Professor Klodiana Lanaj, coauthor of the study says, “Women not only gain by leaning in, but gain disproportionately compared to male colleagues. In effect, they enjoy a bonus for leaning in.”

You have to prove yourself over and over again.

Joan C. Williams, a lawyer and Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law is co-author of “What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know.” She posted a video series on her book at  For the book, she and her daughter studied 35 years of gender bias research and interviewed 127 well placed women and found that women have to provide more evidence of competence than men.

Whereas men in the workplace are judged more by their potential, women must continue to prove themselves. She also notes that mistakes made by women are noticed more and remembered longer.


Keep an ongoing record of your achievements. For years, I kept a notebook where I listed key metrics I achieved, and exceeded. I also kept notes and emails of commendation. Initially, I kept these as a “wins” file to encourage me from time to time, but it evolved to be a source of information when I asked for a promotion or updated my resume and interviewed for a better position.

Professor Williams also advises forming a “posse” of women and men colleagues with the goal of encouraging one another sharing your accomplishments with each other and celebrating each other’s successes, as that is a way of sharing your achievements more widely and building key relationships at the same time.

You feel like you are walking a tightrope of being both respected and likable.

If you adopt overly masculine traits of toughness, you will not be liked. But if you are too friendly, you won’t be respected. Studies show that both men and women respect women leaders who are empathetic. This is one area where you have more influence than you imagine.

As you struggle to find the balance, at times you may be more authoritarian in your directives, or defensive in your responses. Or, you may not yet be comfortable with your role, position, authority, or level of leadership and with your words and actions, you undermine your position by being apologetic or give signals that you are uncertain and not confident.

This happened to me as I grew one of my biggest companies.  One of my colleagues on the management team asked me, rather impatiently one day, why I kept apologizing! I had no idea I was doing it, and it took me awhile to understand that I was not owning my leadership role and was struggling with the balance of likeability and respect.


Do something as simple as changing your body language. Dr. Amy Cuddy’s research has shown that the body language we intentionally choose influences how we and and others perceive us.  In her renown Ted Talk she recommends specific actions, such as a “power pose” that physiologically and psychologically improves our confidence and others’ respect.

She also suggests that you avoid using five body motions “that make you look less warm: leaning away; crossing arms; touching, rubbing or grasping hands together; and touching the face, stomach, or other parts of the body.”

Writer Kara Andersen also recommends you add warmth in interactions with your team:

“Other ways to demonstrate warmth towards others are to praise others by name for specific actions, prove you’ve heard themuse connective humor, share uplifting newssidle up (standing more or less side-by-side rather than facing off) and walk together.”

And don’t apologize for your ideas or requests!

There are unexplained conflicts with other women.

There may be just one woman in senior leadership, or there is a Queen Bee among women leaders in your enterprise. If the culture is strongly gender biased, it generates a sense of scarcity – such that women in the group may rightly believe that only one or two women can get to the top. Certain women may be threatened that they will lose their position if another woman or women rise within the organization.


First off all, know you have options.

Author and coach John Baldoni notes that his colleague, Barb Allushuski, president of Blue Heron Talent of Ann Arbor, Michigan, says:

“It is best to call out the offensive behavior and confront the female supervisor relative to the dual standard.  If the female leader becomes defensive, my advice is that the subordinate needs to ask the leader about her own performance very directly.” 

Ask for specifics about how to improve.

Avoid being defensive or confrontational, and accept the feedback graciously. You will learn something valuable. Such behavior demonstrates composure and professionalism under fire, and if you want to rise to increasing levels of leadership, you’ll need to develop grace under fire.

You can also seek to build a bridge by telling the boss what attributes you admire about her – if you are honest, there are some. Ask for her advice and the secrets of her success. Build the relationship with humility.

Dealing with a difficult person like this is hopefully rare. Use it as an opportunity to grow your leadership skills, cultivate courage, and stand up for what is right.  Lean in to the challenge and don’t run away – it will be good for you and the leader who is out of line and you will gain more than you can imagine.

Your commitment to your career is questioned if/when you have children.

When I was expecting our first son, I was stunned at how many people asked me, “Are you coming back after you have the baby?”

On one level, it was a fair question, since some women opt to stay home with their children. However, it was not necessarily a thoughtful question. After all, I had co-founded the company, and was achieving and exceeding goals for my department, and was a key member of the executive management team.

No one was asking my husband, who was also co-founder and CEO, if he was going to leave after our son was born. I had to work extra hard to assure people I was not planning to leave the company, and be clear that I would be involved moving forward.


Be clear about your plans to not only stay on, but set and achieve quantifiable goals that align with and enhance corporate objectives. Take the initiative to show you have a plan to execute.  But also, be yourself!  You do not have to hide the fact that you are a devoted Mom, or prove that you are working at all hours of the night.  This has been a significant improvement over the past several years as many firms realize they must create and guide a family friendly workplace for women and men.

Bottom line, everyone possesses unconscious biases, myself included. Acknowledging the impacts of unconscious bias is a start, but we have a lot of work to do. Put some of these suggestions into place and you will go a long way in achieving your leadership potential and helping other women achieve theirs.


Caren Merrick is the Founder & CEO of Pocket Mentor, a mobile app and multi-media company providing leaders with daily advice, tools, and action plans to win at work and succeed in life. You can follow her on Twitter @CDMerrickFacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram.

Nancy Clark is CEO of PositivityDaily, Director of Forbes WomensMedia, and author of The Positive Journal. She coaches companies and executives in business skills with the added benefit of training in positive psychology and happiness -- incorporating the latest scientific studies on changing brain patterns and habits. Clark believes that positivity is the next necessary step to engage employees.

Tags: ,

About the Author

Nancy Clark is CEO of PositivityDaily, Director of Forbes WomensMedia, and author of The Positive Journal. She coaches companies and executives in business skills with the added benefit of training in positive psychology and happiness -- incorporating the latest scientific studies on changing brain patterns and habits. Clark believes that positivity is the next necessary step to engage employees.

Back to Top ↑