Gender bias is still a problem in the workplace, despite decades of attention to the issue.
According to the 2019 Women in the Workplace report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, one in four women thinks their gender played a role in missing out on a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.
In this landscape, how do female business leaders handle gender bias in their businesses and throughout their professional lives?
A Prevalent Issue
In a tight labor market where talent is scarce, gender bias creates a number of issues. The Women in the Workplace report found that opportunity and fairness are the strongest predictors of employee satisfaction. And when employees are not happy with one workplace, they may simply move on elsewhere.
"You deal with gender bias regardless [of whether] you're on your own or if you're working for a firm, organization, or company," says Pooja Kothari, founder and CEO of Boundless Awareness, LLC, a New York City firm that consults with companies and individuals about bias. "Women tend to have to toe a line that men rarely have to think about to be taken seriously, to be respected, or to get the business we want. And that line that women have to toe can get even narrower for women of color."
Bias often emerges in the gendered norms of doing business, Kothari says. The "double-bind" women face—having to worry about being "too soft" or "too strong" in their negotiations and communication—is well-documented. Women who come across as too nice or soft aren't seen as leadership material, while women viewed as too outspoken or forthright are often penalized for being too abrasive.
Addressing Workplace Bias
But the good news is that more women are becoming senior leaders. In addition, women-led businesses grew 58% between 2007 and 2018, according to a report by Guidant Financial. And, as more women take on leadership roles in business, they may have more opportunities to combat the gender bias they see.
"I think women are having more than a moment where the awareness of gender bias is front and center, which allows more women to use the issue to their advantage as opposed to it only being a detriment," says Laurel Mintz, founder of Elevate My Brand, a WBENC-certified digital and experiential marketing agency in Los Angeles. There are a number of concrete steps women leaders can take to address gender bias in their organizations.
Bias exists, so addressing it should be part of the business plan, Kothari says. "Bias is like the oxygen we breathe. It is everywhere and [it's] unavoidable, and if you are not thinking about how to address it from day one, you will exhale that bias inside your company," she says.
Companies can help employees and other leaders understand, recognize, and feel less threatened by their implicit and explicit biases through training and, sometimes, working with a consultant.
Setting the Standard
Think about how you want people to treat each other in your organization and how you want clients to treat you, Kothari says. She recommends asking a few key questions:
- What are your boundaries for how clients should treat you?
- What are your boundaries for how colleagues should treat each other?
- How will you make a culture of accepting responsibility when bias comes out instead of hiding from it or denying it happened? (Taking responsibility is often the first step to creating more inclusion in your workplace).
- What means are you willing to use to enforce those boundaries while also protecting your business, brand, or reputation?
Remember: Bias can derail employee engagement, so addressing it and helping employees feel valued within the organization is an important retention strategy.
Using Your Networks
Allies are critical in dealing with gender bias, both from a practical and a more personal perspective. Marissa Ryan, chief marketing officer and managing partner at Chicago-based digital marketing firm VisualFizz says that dealing with gender bias is frustrating. She says one of the best ways she's found to deal with it is "to come ready to knock it out of the park for every conversation, every project, every time. Come prepared with an answer for every question you can think of, and when it comes time to show off your skills, try everything you can to absolutely nail the task at hand."
But she also says keeping in contact with other women in her field is an important coping mechanism. "Discussing these things, even over cocktails, helps us all keep our sanity and can help you to stay in the know with what others deal with. Gender bias can be extremely frustrating and make you feel isolated and at fault, so camaraderie helps to alleviate this," she says.
Creating a Support Group Within Your Company
Mintz agrees and suggests rallying internal resources, too. "I know companies like Hulu have created an internal women's group called Hula whose main purpose is to uplift and create a community for women in that massive organization. They have a lot of conversations around this topic and have done a good job of making women and other diverse employees feel supported. So if you think it's an issue, create a support group within your company," she says.
Creating an environment where bias is addressed and reduced while helping employees feel supported helps improve culture overall. By raising awareness and giving your team the resources they need to confront and address their own biases, you can improve your organizational culture and help everyone feel welcome.