5 Actions Leaders Can Take to Overcome Unconscious Gender Bias at Work

Jeffery Tobias Halter

29 July 2019

Many men I know question whether men and women do in fact face different experiences at work. Isn’t everyone experiencing the workplace in the same way? The simple answer is no. If you don’t believe gender bias exists in the workplace, do this one test for a week: Listen and observe. In most meetings, women’s voices and ideas are talked over or ignored, as Susan Chira illustrates in her article, The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women, in The New York Times. 

Additionally, observe if women do more office housework such as taking notes, planning social events and getting the coffee. And if you want more data, all you need to do is ask: If you ask a woman in a genuine manner what these instances feel like, she will tell you. These workplace inequalities may seem minor, but when taken together, they can cause numerous hurdles and challenges for women.

Today, many organizations are taking a closer look at gender inequities and unconscious gender biases in the workplace and the impact they have on productivity and talent retention. If you’re a male leader and are committed to becoming an advocate to advance women in the workplace, you will notice these behaviors more frequently. When you’re aware of the harm it does to women (and frankly to your organizational culture, which should be attracting more women leaders in the fierce war for talent), you will want to address these issues when they happen. Here are some simple actions and steps male leaders, in particular, can take to change the unconscious gender bias dynamic in their organizations:

1. Interrupting. Men interrupting or talking over women in meetings takes place with astounding frequency at some workplaces. I once worked with a senior leader of a large pharmaceutical company who was somewhat skeptical of my assertions on this. As a data-driven scientist at heart, he decided to conduct an experiment. For the next month, he noted every time a woman was interrupted while speaking during meetings. At the end of the month, he called me and said, “I’m a believer.” Then he made changes in the way his organization conducted meetings. An effective method for derailing the tendency to interrupt is to simply say, “Please let her finish her thought. I want to hear her take on this.”  

2. Taking credit. Another element of unconscious gender bias can involve men shooting down a woman’s ideas in a meeting one minute and taking credit for them as their own the next. As with all unconscious bias, this is usually indeed “unconscious” but certainly says something about how men perceive women’s ideas and input. As an ally, it’s important to be a visible and vocal supporter of women. Amplify other people’s ideas by restating them and using their names. Volunteer to mentor a female colleague and routinely give public kudos, describing her expertise.

3. Mansplaining. This refers to the tendency of some men to interrupt or speak over a woman to explain something that she already knows or even something in which she is already an expert. This behavior can be shut down by drawing attention to a colleague’s expertise and publicly asking for her input and opinions. Women can ask an incisive question that demonstrates their knowledge or can use the phrase, “In my experience…” to remind men of their know-how. 

4. Invisibility. With 80 percent of senior-level roles still occupied by men, it’s important for male leaders to use their influence to increase the visibility of women. It’s also important for women to enlist the engagement of male allies to encourage their advancement. Being invisible at and to the top levels of the company indicates there may be unconscious bias regarding who deserves to be there and if women are competent managers. To assist women in advancing to upper levels of management, agree to mentor and sponsor women and encourage them to take stretch assignments, apply for open positions, speak on panels, or take other opportunities for greater visibility within the organization and industry.

5. Office Housework. It is important to not only encourage everyone to do their fair share of the office housekeeping, but also to make it standard practice. When was the last time your performance review gave you credit or kudos for always volunteering for office housework? My guess is never. It’s time to share the workload so each team member can perform their job responsibilities. Suggest ways that the tasks can be distributed equitably. Rotate which team member takes meeting notes, plans social events and sends meeting reminders. Don’t assume the woman in the room will always handle the details.

Awareness is a critical element in achieving gender equality and equity at work. Understanding how unconscious bias negatively impacts women and plays out in the workplace is the first step in taking action to create an inclusive environment that allows each team member to contribute fully to the team and to the bottom line.

Jeffery Tobias Halter

Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Founder of the Father of Daughter Initiative, creator of the Gender Conversation QuickStarters Newsletter and the Male Advocacy Profile, Jeffery is former director of diversity strategy for The Coca-Cola Company and is the author of two books, “WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men” and “Selling to Men, Selling to Women.”

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