The Big Picture: Most Nations Have Barriers for Working Women

A recent study by the World Bank of 173 countries, reported by Somini Sengupta of the New York Times found that “90 percent of the countries surveyed had at least one law that discriminated against women.” These restrictions on women were found in both rich and poor countries. In some cases, including in the United States, the absence of some laws creates barriers. Sengupta shared some examples:

  • The United States is one of only four advanced countries around the world with no national laws requiring paid parental leave for new mothers.
  • Russia bars women from a variety of jobs, including freight train conductor and mining rig operator.
  • Iran and Qatar are among eighteen countries that require a married woman to ask for her husband’s permission to go to work.
  • The most restrictive laws are in the Middle East, where some nations prohibit women from applying for passports or opening businesses without their husband’s permission.
  • The most restrictive economies include American allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq, along with Iran and Syria.
  • The gender wage gap is lower in countries with no restrictions but still exists almost everywhere.

Why Countries Should Care

In addition to the issue of basic fairness for girls and women regarding equal access to education and economic opportunity, countries are actually limiting their own growth and prosperity when they limit opportunities for women. Kaushik Basu, chief economist at the World Bank, noted, “Removing these [barriers] can unleash energy and growth.” It’s important for all of us to have the big picture about global gender discrimination. I think this awareness can energize us to act locally against gender discrimination when we think globally. What could acting locally look like for you?  What actions could you take?     “A Young Woman at Work” by worldbank is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]]>

Bias and the Brain: What We Can Learn from Neuroscience about Undoing Bias

Earlier in my career I worked in an organization for a senior leader who was a white male. The CFO of the organization, also a white male, reported to my boss, and the second-in-command to the CFO was an African American woman named Allison. My peers and I could see that the CFO was a slacker. He never got back to people or produced the deliverables he promised, and he was rarely in the office. Allison did his work and her own, and everyone knew to go to Allison if they wanted results. And her work was impeccable. I was relieved when, after about five years, the CFO resigned. I was shocked, though, to discover that my boss was not even considering Allison as the CFO’s replacement. When I asked why not, he explained that he did not feel Allison had enough experience to handle the CFO role. He could not see that Allison had been operating as the de facto CFO for years. This story is an example of the impact that bias can have. A recent article by Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock defines biases, which we all have, as nonconscious drivers that influence how people see the world. The authors explain that biases “exert their influence outside of conscious awareness.” My boss could not see Allison’s talents and contributions, even though they were as plain as day to my peers and me. Let’s take a look at what types of biases may have been operating to make it difficult for the boss to really see Allison and what neuroscience can tell us about how to overcome biases in organizations. Scientists have identified five common biases:

  1. Similarity Biases—The two most prevalent forms of similarity bias are ingroup and outgroup preferences. In other words, “people like me are better than others.” This bias results in being more likely to hire and promote people we perceive as similar. Allison’s boss may not have been able to “see her” because she was different from him in at least two visible ways—race and gender—making it doubly hard for her to be visible to him.
  2. Expedience Biases—This form of bias results in making decisions based on what information is immediately available in the brain and what “feels right,” rather than taking the time to research or check out other perceptions.
  3. Experience Biases—People with this form of bias tend to assume that what they see is all there is to see. It is possible that Allison’s boss had never known or seen a CFO who was an African American woman and couldn’t imagine that this was a possibility.
  4. Distance Biases—This form of bias often manifests as a tendency toward short-term thinking.
  5. Safety Biases—Our brains have learned to avoid loss. Consequently, we reflexively choose what feels safe. She probably did not feel like a safe choice to him.

How to Mitigate and Manage Bias

The authors, Halverson and Rock, note that “there is very little evidence that educating people about biases does anything to reduce their influence.” They note that US companies spend $200 million to $300 million a year on diversity and sensitivity training programs. Because “human biases occur outside of conscious awareness,” training programs do not change individual ability to be aware of bias. What does work? For individuals, when you notice feeling distant or uncomfortable with people who seem different than you, look for commonalities with them. Discover the goals, values, experiences, and preferences that you share. The authors explain, “this causes the brain to recategorize these individuals” and recognize them as being affiliated with you. For organizations, the authors suggest that it is important “to cultivate an organization-wide culture in which people continually remind one another that the brain’s default setting” may be stuck in a belief that requires reflection and examination to see what else could be true. Allison’s boss was challenged by a large number of people in the organization about his belief that Allison was not experienced enough to be the CFO. It took a lot of pressure from a lot of people, but he finally relented and promoted her. He was very surprised to discover how capable she was—but he had been blinded by his biases. And we all are blinded by biases. We all need help from friends and colleagues who will challenge us to ask, “what else could be true?”   Image courtesy of stockimages at]]>

Gender-lens Investing: How Does It Work?

I was surprised to read about gender-lens investing recently in an article by Paul Sullivan in the New York Times. I just didn’t know it existed. It is defined as “investing strategically to help advance women’s causes while earning a return.” I have heard of socially responsible investing where investors look for companies that “do no harm” to the environment or the communities in which they are located. Gender-lens investing falls under the umbrella of socially responsible investing with the additional goals of impacting positive social change and producing a financial return for the investor. Specifically, Sullivan explains that investments are made to “promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through both debt and equity investments in the United States and emerging markets.” There are three options currently utilized for making gender-lens investments:

  1. Make money available to enterprises owned by women.
  2. Focus on employment for women.
  3. Invest in companies that provide products and services that help women. An example is a company that provides clean-burning cook stoves to women in Africa and Latin America or companies that get water-purification systems to rural areas.
I had heard of grant-making organizations, such as the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (VGIF) where small grants are made globally to fund women-led grassroots projects in developing countries that advance the rights of women and girls. The grants are made from donated funds and are not expected to be repaid, although their impact is measured. I have also heard about microcredit, where microloans to women have been a successful tool for alleviating poverty in developing countries, although critics disagree with the claims of positive social impact. Gender-lens investing is a different approach to creating positive social change for women and girls, and we need multiple approaches. I am not a person of wealth, but I do have retirement savings that are invested. I’m intrigued by the idea of not only saving for my future but also helping women and girls at the same time. Do you have experience with gender-lens investing? If yes, what have you learned about it that might help others take a step in that direction? Let us hear from you.   Image courtesy of Ambro at]]>

Next Steps for Connecting Across Differences

  • Identify the sides on your prism that are most relevant for you at this time in your life and career, keeping gender in the center. For example, I might ask myself how being a Jewish woman, white woman, US-born woman, and woman in my sixties are all currently impacting my experience. What is important for others to know about me as I turn the prism that reflects my wholeness?
  • Make a list of the sides of your prism. Reflect on how each side interacts with being a woman for you at this time in your life and career.
  • Become more curious and open to learning about the experiences of other women who are different. Listen to understand, and be willing to share your experience.
  • Make a connection once a month with someone from a different culture whom you don’t usually interact with. Cultural differences can include different employment levels, ages, races, nationalities, religions, and other differences.
  • Read the histories of other groups or watch movies about the experiences of women from different cultures, such as Real Women Have Curves.
  •   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Next Steps to Fight Career Aggression

  • Practice feedback skills as much as you can. As with any skills, they get easier with practice. You can practice giving positive feedback to family members, friends, or coworkers so that you are ready to give negative feedback when the need arises. Be sure to include all the important elements of effective feedback: specific behavior, reaction (thoughts), and feelings. Each component gives a different type of information about the impact of a person’s behavior, and they are all important.
  • Practice using the mother-sister-daughter triangle. Notice when you have strong reactions to another woman, either positive or negative, and ask yourself where you have placed her in the triangle. Whom does she remind you of?
  • Investigate the current support structures in your organization for strengthening a women’s community, for learning and creating a shared vision and code of conduct, and for assessing the company’s policies and procedures. Is there a diversity effort? An existing women’s forum? If yes, get involved in the program committee. If not, get a group of women together, including women bosses, for a monthly lunch or dinner and talk about how to shift the patterns to support each other more. Discuss the company policies and practices, and consider how you might develop a business case to present to the leaders about changes that are needed.
  • Research the EEO and harassment policies in your organization. Every organization has them. Be aware of what they say and know your rights.
  •   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Career Aggression: What You Can Do to Stop It

  • Whom you talked to
  • What you noticed or heard
  • When you had each observation or conversation or learned a piece of information
  • The rule of thumb is to create a detailed record of who, what, and when as soon as you begin to feel that something might be going on that is directed at damaging you. Keep these notes with you and do not leave them lying on your desk or easily accessible in your desk because someone who might spread the information around or who might personally be involved in trying to damage you could see them. You will eventually bring this record with you to HR to provide facts for your case. Step 2: Do your homework. Research your organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement, employee code of conduct, and harassment policy to understand your rights. Download them from the organization’s website, or obtain them from the Human Resources Department. Underline the sections that seem to cover your situation and add them to the folder of materials that you are keeping with you. Every organization has policies and statements that reflect its legal obligation to provide a work environment for all employees that is free from harassment and protects employees from working in a hostile work environment. If someone is trying to damage your career, that person is creating a hostile work environment for you. Your request for help to stop the unwelcome behavior directed at damaging your reputation and career will be taken more seriously when you can show you have done your homework and understand your rights as an employee. Step 3: Seek out a trusted advisor. It is important that you talk with someone whom you trust to have an unbiased view. This person can help you think through how you will proceed and help you put together your talking points if you are going to confront the aggressor or file an official complaint. You may know a person in HR whom you feel can be your trusted advisor and keep your conversations confidential until you decide what action you are going to take. If not, a trusted advisor can also be any of the following: (1) someone at work who can advise you (2) a family member who is not biased or emotionally involved, or (3) a professional, such as a clergy member or a therapist with whomyou have a good relationship. Step 4: Confront the career aggressor. If at all possible, confront your aggressor in front of a witness before you officially file a complaint. Plan your talking points with your trusted advisor, and confront your aggressor in a private setting with a witness at your side. The aggressor may admit that she has been acting to damage you, or she may not. In either case, record what happens in the conversation in your detailed notes, as well as any subsequent actions the person might take to try to threaten you to keep you from filing a complaint. Step 5: Have a confidential conversation with a management- or director-level HR person. Discuss filing a complaint and show the person your detailed record. Discuss steps to escalate your complaint to the next level and ask for her or his advice. It is your decision whether or not to take the next steps. If you decide to go forward with filing a formal complaint, the organization must conduct an investigation. Whether or not the organization is able to prove that the accused person did try to damage your career, this fluid process is very likely to stop the career aggression and restore your reputation. This process is summarized in table 9.
      Table 9. How to stop career aggression
    Step 1: Create a detailed record: who, what, and when. Step 2: Research the organization’s EEO statement, employee code of conduct, and harassment policy. Step 3: Seek out a trusted advisor. Step 4: Confront the career aggressor. Step 5: Speak with a director-level HR professional about filing a complaint.
        An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    The Mother-Sister-Daughter Triangle: A Tool for Identifying Projections between Women

    The core roles of mother, sister, and daughter are universal influences in our development as women, and the triangle is an archetypal structure reflecting the interdependent aspects of these influences (see figure 1). It seems likely that this collective experience of women in one or more of these roles informs many of our relationships with other women. Every woman knows the experience of being a daughter. Although not all women have the experience of being a mother or a sister, most women hold some idealized image of mother and sister in their psyche. These experiences or idealizations are often so potent that we project them onto others. They can influence everyday behavior in individual women. The phenomenon of the mother-sister-daughter triangle becomes a lens through which our relationships with other women can be viewed, especially when we are trying to make sense of extreme reactions to another woman—positive or negative, adoration or detestation. To use the mother-sister-daughter lens effectively, you must have some understanding of where you might be caught in the triangle with the other woman to whom you are having a strong reaction. Does she remind you of your mother or sister or daughter? If you can see a connection between how this woman has behaved toward you and an early experience you had, you might come to feel less offended by her. As an example, I felt that a woman I had known professionally, Cheryl, had treated me unfairly, and she had not responded to my requests to discuss the offending incident at the time. Several years went by, and I was not happy to walk into a new organization and see her working there. I felt that I could not trust her because of what happened in the past, and I told other people not to trust her either. I kept my distance from her. I could not see that I was also behaving in an untrustworthy manner by making demeaning comments about her to others. I could only see that she was someone who had done me wrong. After some time in the same organization (and avoiding her), I learned about the mother-sister-daughter triangle in a women’s leadership training course, and I applied it to my relationship with Cheryl. I asked myself whom Cheryl reminded me of in my family. It took some time for me to realize that she reminded me of one of my sisters, who had tried to physically harm me when we were young. I had put Cheryl in the dangerous sister part of the triangle. As soon as I realized I had done that, an amazing thing happened. It was like a curtain lifted and I could see Cheryl for who she really was. I stopped feeling negative about her. We were never able to reconstruct exactly what had happened all those years ago, but she no longer felt untrustworthy to me. She turned out to be a very nice woman who was not my dangerous sister. This was a projection that I had put on her that was not actually about her at all.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>