Could Subtle Gender Bias Be Holding You Back? How to Recognize and Overcome It

gender wage gap, which indicate that women make somewhere between 62 percent and 77 percent compared with the wages of male colleagues who do the same work (and the wage gap is much worse for women of color), but they don’t think the same could be happening to them. But gender bias can be subtle and hard to recognize. Are any of the scenarios below familiar to you? If so, gender bias may be working against you.

  • Recently a woman came to me for coaching because her boss told her that she needed to smile more to get promoted. She wanted me to help her learn to smile more, but she was bewildered about what this feedback really meant.
  • Another woman came for coaching because her supervisor gave her a mediocre performance review, calling her “indecisive” because she spent too much time “coddling” her team by asking for their input on decisions—yet her results were very strong.
  • Yet another woman recently came for coaching about how to get promoted. She had been with her large company for more than twenty-five years. She wanted to become a senior leader and had done everything her mentors suggested to prepare herself, yet in more than ten years she had been offered nothing more than lateral job changes while men all around her were moving up. When she asked why she was not moving up, she was told she lacked “executive presence” with no useful guidance about what she needed to do differently.
Each of these cases could be explained away as deficiencies that the individual women needed to fix. In fact, both my professional experience and a lot of recent research show that these women are probably being held back by common biases and assumptions present in many organizations. These biases are subtle and hard to see, but they can have a significant impact on women’s careers, self-confidence and pay level. Could subtle biases be holding you back? Here are some techniques that may help:
  • Smile more. Do we really have to smile more? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, for now. The subtle bias usually operating in this feedback has to do with the difficulty women have being perceived as both competent and likeable, discussed by Sheryl Sandberg as “the likeability factor. To overcome this bias, educate yourself about gender bias in the workplace and keep conversations with your boss focused on your results. Document your results and remind your boss about them from time to time—while smiling. Networking with other women and having a “safe setting” where you can share experiences, feedback, and best practices is important too.
  • Exercise collaborative leadership. The ability to build and utilize teams is a strength women should feel proud of and leverage. The command/control leadership style that is rewarded in most organizations is not the only style that produces results but is often the only style that gets rewarded. Share some reading materials about gender style differences with your boss and challenge him or her to consider supporting diverse leadership styles. Start a book club with both female and male colleagues to discuss gender style and leadership style differences and work together to encourage the organization to recognize and reward a broader range of leadership styles.
  • Demonstrate executive presence. Promotion decisions based on “lack of executive presence” for women often reflect a gender bias in organizations—men are more comfortable “tooting their own horns” about their accomplishments and nominating themselves for assignments and promotions for which they may not even be qualified. Women hesitate to do the same or underplay their accomplishments, which can be interpreted as lacking executive presence. As women, we can learn to be more self-promoting. We can also agree to promote each other to senior leaders.
If we educate ourselves about gender bias, we will be more likely to recognize it when we experience it and to know whether feedback is useful or not. We also need the support of other women so that we can share best practices for dealing with subtle workplace bias. And we need the support of male colleagues who understand how subtle gender bias operates. With awareness, action, and support we can overcome these barriers that hold us back. Have you encountered subtle gender bias at work? Have you found ways to overcome it?]]>

Next Steps

1. Assess your organization’s culture.

a. Describe your organization’s culture. Which values are rewarded? Which values are discouraged? Which values best fit your own orientation to the world?

b. Share your perceptions with other colleagues and, possibly, with your boss.

2. Identify your friendship rules. Talk to your friends, coworkers, and family members and bring these rules into your consciousness. Write them down. Continue to notice your unspoken expectations. 3. Identify the friendship rules of other women in your life, both inside and outside of work. Help bring these rules into their consciousness. Begin to notice where yours and theirs are similar and different. 4. Become more comfortable with conflict.

a. Make a list of the thoughts and feelings that come up for you when you think about conflict. Notice whether you think about conflict as negative or neutral. b. The next time a conflict or potential disagreement comes up, take the risk to reframe it as just a difference of opinion and stay engaged. Notice what happens. c. Assess how your organization holds or values conflict. Is conflict seen as healthy or as destructive? Is it encouraged or discouraged? Compare your perceptions with your coworkers and, possibly, with your boss.

  An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Don’t Discuss Friendship Rules

  • “She should know what she did.”
  • “I shouldn’t have to say anything. She should be able to figure it out.”
  • “There isn’t any point in bringing it up because she would just get defensive.”
  • “I can’t trust her now so what’s the point?”
  • The taboo against discussion means that mismatched assumptions may not be discovered until damage has been done to the relationship. Vana, a Latina manager in the United States in her forties, explained,

    We never really stop and talk about what we expect from each other as friends. I know I would always help you out, but we never stop and say those things. We just, in our minds, expect it—and it’s our own fault that we get burned sometimes.

    It becomes even more imperative to be able to name and discuss our friendship rules in the workplace, where boundary and role confusion also enter the picture. We must learn to articulate and negotiate our friendship rules and develop relational courage so that we can stay present and in relationships when other women do not meet our expectations.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    How Friendly to Be When You Are the Boss

    women tend to emphasize the fluid nature of the boundaries between personal life and work life. But fluid boundaries can also cause confusion. One research participant, Penny, an administrator in higher education, explained, “My female staff will come to me and say, ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ They feel like a relationship with me should be all access.” Penny wanted to be friendly but was afraid of undermining her authority as the boss. She wondered whether she should just keep a distance and stay aloof. In conducting research for my book on women’s relationships in organizations, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, I found that women expect closer relationships with female bosses than with male bosses. Sheri, a technology manager, expressed it this way: I had a woman boss who was more task focused, and it made it harder for me to work for her. With a guy, I would have expected [a task focus], but I expected a little bit more of a relationship from her. It was all she could do to say, “How was your weekend?” That made it real uncomfortable for me. If a guy did that, it wouldn’t bother me as much. This difference in expectations means that when female bosses do not invest the time to be friendly with female employees, these employees may not be as motivated or productive as they could be. The good news is that our comfort with fluid relationship boundaries can contribute to our successes at building teams and highly productive workforces. The bad news is that fluid boundaries can cause confusion and damage relationships when not handled well. What is the answer? Scholars, and about 25 percent of the women in my research, propose that women bosses learn to distinguish between being friends and being friendly with other women at work. I would go a step further and say that this does not need to be an either/or option. We can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name our role—boss or friend—in any given interaction. We also need to have a clear understanding of how the relational expectations differ for these two roles. Use a Tool Called Role Hats Women leaders can learn to manage role and relationship boundaries. We can be friendly and still be respected as the boss. We can even be the bosses of friends without damaging the relationship. The key is to learn how to discuss and negotiate our role and relationship boundaries. Sharon, the CEO of a healthcare services organization, applies a useful tool called role hats: To be friends at work requires total transparency. I explicitly name the role that I’m coming from—boss or friend. And we are always clear about how the hats work—what I can and cannot talk about when I have my boss hat on and how I see my responsibilities. We can also be friends outside of work as long as we stay clear about our hats. The key, then, is to be explicit about your expectations. We can be friendly and still be the boss, but we must be clear about what wearing the boss hat means to us, as well as make sure we understand our employees’ expectations of us. Here are some steps you can take to make this work:

    1. Name each person’s functional role, such as boss, friend, or colleague.
    2. Discuss each person’s needs in each role and really listen to one another.
    3. Exchange suggestions for behaviors that could meet each person’s needs in each role.
    4. Establish ground rules for how you will alert each other to your use of a role hat, such as:
      1. Ask me which hat I’m wearing.
      2. Ask me to change hats any time.
    5. Communicate honestly with each other whenever you cannot comply with a request and always explain why.
    Good relationships at work are important for our well-being, satisfaction, and success. Because many women expect more of a relationship from female bosses than from males, we need to learn to invest in relationships and to manage their boundaries when necessary. And we can do this.]]>

    Tears at Work: Natural but Taboo

    The Complexity of Connection. As one of my research participants explained, in most workplaces where masculine workplace values dominate the culture, you are expected to “leave your feelings at the door” when you come into the workplace. I have always felt that tears are a natural expression of a wide range of emotions, from intense joy to deep frustration or disappointment, as well as less extreme emotional reactions, such as a release in response to the pressures of deadlines. Both men and women shed tears at work, but because of our socialization, women tend to express emotion more easily and tears come more often for them. Anne Kreamer’s study found that women cry in the office more than men do—40 percent of women cry compared with 9 percent of men. I feel sad, though, that so many of my female clients feel they must suppress their tears at work. They have sometimes been told by supervisors that they are “too emotional.” When I ask why they think they should stuff down their tears, they have many answers:

    • They will be seen as weak if they shed tears.
    • They will make their male colleagues and bosses uncomfortable.
    • They will be seen as irrational and out of control.
    • They have been told that you can’t be a leader and cry.
    These reasons have never made sense to me. Expressing a full range of emotions is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. When women (and men) have to choke off their tears, they are choking off their ability to fully and authentically express themselves and they are suppressing their voices. Here are some ideas for what to do when your emotions and your eyes well up at work.
    • Keep breathing, rather than trying to choke your tears down by holding your breath. You will probably find that if you keep breathing you can continue to talk.
    • Explain to your coworkers that you are fine and that your tears do not mean you cannot participate in the conversation or meeting. Explain what you’re feeling (frustration, joy, or whatever) right now; these feelings are probably very relevant to what is going on. Just keep talking if you can.
    • Excuse yourself and step out if you need a break because your emotions are really strong; then come back when you are ready. Explain your actions and pick up where you left off, thereby demonstrating that people can cry and not become dysfunctional.
    Being authentic makes you a stronger leader, not a weaker one. When you are authentic, people will trust you more and become more comfortable with emotions—maybe even with their own. We are, after all, all human. Where do you stand on this issue? Write to me and let me know.]]>

    Self-Disclose

    There’s an expectation that you check your feelings at the door. “Hey, this is the workplace!” It’s not that men don’t cry, but women are more likely to cry when you hurt their feelings in the workplace, and I think it’s really hard to cry in the presence of a man. If you must cry, ask a woman friend to meet you in the restroom and cry with a woman.

    Once again, women are set up to be disappointed by each other in the context of the masculine workplace if they expect empathy and emotional engagement from each other, and some women are trying to play by the rules of the masculine workplace to get promoted. Many women in this study, as well as in my consulting and coaching work, have told me how important it is that they not cry at work. Why? Because they will be seen as weak? They will make men uncomfortable? Tears mean you are irrational and out of control? You can’t be a leader and cry? These reasons have never made sense to me. Expressing a full range of emotions is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. When women (and men) have to choke off emotion, such as those expressed by tears, they are choking off their ability to fully and authentically express themselves and are suppressing their voice. We will all benefit from working together to change this norm. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    Who Am I?

    Differences Make a Difference—Part I Women are not all the same. I write and give talks about women in organizations, but I know that generalizations about women are inaccurate. Of course, we are all different, but I agree with Joyce K. Fletcher and other researcherswho say we also have experiences in common as women in organizations. I believe we may all benefit from better understanding our commonalities as well as our differences. However, it’s complicated. Our individual experiences in organizations are influenced by how gender interacts with race, class, ethnicity, level of employment, sexual orientation, nationality, and even personal history—just to name a few possible variables. One concept that has helped me visualize the ways all these differences interact is the metaphor of a hologram or prism offered by Evangelina Holvino, a scholar on this topic. Holvino suggests that we imagine a prism with gender at the core and many intersecting sides representing race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality. The prism is transparent, and as we turn it we see not only all the differences simultaneously but also each angle displaying a particular combination. Placing gender at the core helps us focus on how gender influences many of our experiences in organizations. Gender is central, according to Dr. D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, because “women have been systematically devalued and excluded in all capitalist patriarchal systems.” Rotating the prism can help us explain ourselves to others and understand one another. For example, to tell you more about who I am, I would rotate the prism to focus on aspects besides gender that are important for you to know about me:

    • I am a white woman.
    • I am in my 60s (but see myself as about 45).
    • I am Jewish.
    • I am upper middle-class.
    • I recently lost my mother.
    I can describe myself in many more ways: For example, my grandparents were immigrants. I am a heterosexual. Different aspects of my prism come into focus at different times. I rotate my prism to convey what’s important to me and where my sensitivities might be at any particular time. Why is this important? Placing gender at the core of our identity has value because gender connects many of our shared experiences in organizations. The paradox is that we cannot truly connect around a shared identity as women until we can also understand and acknowledge our individual differences. The place to start is with understanding ourselves. What facets of your prism are most important for someone to perceive to understand who you are?]]>

    Why Women Have to Smile More at Work

    Lean In when she described some excellent research by Heilman and Okimoto: “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” I thought about this research when I read a recent New York Times newspaper article with the headline, “In Memoir, Hillary Clinton Emphasizes Her Softer Side.” I stopped and did a double take when I saw this headline. I wondered if, based on the harsh reaction Clinton triggered in many women and men during her 2008 campaign for president, she has been advised to do the equivalent of “smiling more”—or showing her softer side. So much research has been done now on what some authors call “the likeability factor,” including that recorded in Babcock and Laschever’s book Women Don’t Ask, that we have to take the gender difference seriously. It may seem unfair that women are held to a different standard of leadership behavior, but it seems to be a reality for us at this point in time. It’s not that women have to get “fixed,” it’s that different gender stereotypes mean we sometimes have to act differently to be successful. Here are some approaches that have worked for my clients:

    • They smile more than their male peers to help people be comfortable with them as leaders.
    • They invest more time than their male peers in relational behavior, such as listening to others.
    • They take time to share some personal information and show an interest in the personal lives of others.
    What has worked for you? I would love to hear your tips and stories to share with others.]]>