Gender Bias—Past Is Present

Gender bias in the workplace, defined as forms of discrimination against women that reflect the values and mind-sets of the men who created the settings and practices, is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. While many of these gender-biased mind-sets and practices are changing, Marisa Porges, writing for the New York Times, points out many interesting ways that the legacies of gender bias from the past are still impacting the present:

  • NASA didn’t have enough space suits that fit female astronauts. Only a few days before the much-publicized first all-female spacewalk was to take place in April 2019, it had to be canceled because of the lack of space suits that fit women.
  • Two years after Porges began flying jets for the navy, somebody noticed that the ejection seat on her jet was not designed for her five-foot-two-inch female frame. It had been designed and tested by and for only men, which increased the risk of major injury for a woman if she needed the safety equipment.

The legacies of gender discrimination are also present in small ways that affect the daily lives and careers of women. Porges notes that while women face many systemic barriers, such as wage gaps, family leave policies, and blocked career pipelines for women in underrepresented fields, the small legacies are also significant:

  • Lack of adequate lactation rooms in most office buildings
  • Antiquated office dress codes that require female employees to wear high heels
  • The size of safety gear available for female astronauts
  • Temperature settings in most workplaces, which are calibrated to men’s metabolic rates and are too cold for women

While Porges focuses on legacies of past gender discrimination reverberating in the present, new sources of gender discrimination are also concerning. Megan Specia writes about the broad gender disparities in the technology and artificial intelligence (AI) sectors, noted as problematic in a new Unesco study released in conjunction with the government of Germany and the Equal Skills Coalition. Specia reports that women are grossly underrepresented in AI, making up 12 percent of AI researchers and 6 percent of software developers in the field. The Unesco study states that “a lack of diversity within the industry . . . is reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.” The report states several alarming examples:

  • Most virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa have female names, female voices, and often a submissive or flirtatious style. They also often have a “deflecting, lackluster or apologetic response” to insults, which provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products.
  • Gender and racial biases have also been built into sexist hiring tools developed by Amazon and facial recognition technology that misidentifies black faces.

The report points out that “the more that [technology-enforced] culture teaches people to equate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants—and penalized for not being assistant-like.”

The absence of diversity in engineering teams that are overwhelmingly staffed by men means that gender bias continues to be perpetuated. Our whole culture needs to change and confront the multilayered problem.


Photo by Diego Gavilanez on Unsplash

Sexual Harassment: Women Who Work in Prisons

I can understand why women want jobs in federal prisons: the prisons are usually located in rural areas where decent-paying jobs are scarce, and they are often the main employer in the area. Caitlin Dickerson of the New York Times explains that few women worked in federal prisons until the 1970s when a series of legal decisions in a changing social environment forced the Bureau of Prisons to allow equal access to jobs. While the prison population is 93 percent male, and male employees vastly outnumber female employees, ten thousand women now make up a third of the bureau’s workforce, holding jobs ranging from secretary to regional director. The problem for women working in the Federal Bureau of Prisons system is that they have never been fully accepted as equals by their male colleagues and supervisors. Long before #MeToo, in 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a strongly worded report saying that sexual harassment claims were routinely mishandled and retaliation was unusually high for women employed by the Bureau of Prisons. In 2017, the House Oversight Committee opened an investigation and found gross mismanagement of sexual harassment claims and rewards and promotions for staff accused of sexual harassment against female colleagues. While lawsuits have been filed and settled against the bureau, the culture and practices have not changed, and the EEOC has no power to force these changes. Some examples of the abusive workplace environment that women working in prisons must endure include the following:

  • Inmates grope, threaten, and expose themselves.
  • Male colleagues undermine the authority of female officers by encouraging male inmates to harass them.
  • Some male colleagues join in the harassment themselves.
  • While women who file harassment claims face retaliation, the careers of many harassers and those who protect them flourish.
  • In one instance, a female case manager was raped by an inmate, then she was criminally charged with raping him when she complained.
  • High ranking officers accused of sexual harassment, and their supervisors who protect them, are often transferred to other prisons with promotions while the women who were abused by them are shunned and blackballed from promotion opportunities.
These working conditions for female employees in federal prisons are outrageous. Clearly there is no motivation or will in the leadership of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to change this culture. Perhaps the wave of women newly elected to Congress will decide to put focus and pressure on the bureau to finally change the culture and treat women fairly and respectfully. Let’s all raise this issue with our new congresswomen and see if something can be done to change this situation.   Photo courtesy of VisualHunt (CC0 1.0)]]>

How #MeToo Has Helped Women Get Promotions

One year after publication of the detailed report on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and harassment, a study found that women are replacing the powerful men forced to step down after accusations of sexual misconduct. A recent New York Times article notes that during the past year “200 prominent men have lost their jobs after public allegations of sexual harassment. A few, including Mr. Weinstein, face criminal charges.” Women have replaced nearly half of these high-profile men:

  • One-third are in news media.
  • One-quarter are in government.
  • One-fifth are in entertainment and the arts.
The article explains that many challenges still remain in eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace:
  • Federal law still does not fully protect many groups of working women.
  • A strong backlash against the #MeToo movement, as seen in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, has emerged. Americans disagree on how people should be held accountable and what the standards of evidence should be.
  • New workplace policies have little effect without deeper cultural change.
  • Appointing a woman does not guarantee change. Women have also been accused of harassment.
  • Women are still vastly underrepresented in leadership at American institutions.
As women get promoted into positions of power thanks to the #MeToo movement, they have the potential to change their workplace cultures. The New York Times article summarizes research and experiences showing that women lead differently:
  • Women tend to create more respectful work environments where sexual harassment is less likely to happen and where women are more comfortable reporting it.
  • Women leaders tend to hire and promote more women and pay them more equitably.
  • Research shows that having women in leadership makes companies more profitable. Women bring life experience and perspective to decision making that better reflects the majority of consumers, resulting in higher profits.
  • In government, women are more collaborative and bipartisan. Senator Tina Smith, who replaced Al Franken in the Senate when he was forced to step down by the #MeToo movement, reports that all twenty-three female senators meet for dinner monthly. They find that their success depends upon being able to work together to sponsor bipartisan legislation.
  • In the news media and entertainment, the tone and substance of programming has changed significantly when women stepped into leadership.
  • Women’s personal experiences, including as mothers, can make workplaces more welcoming to other women.
There is a lot of potential for change resulting from the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke. But we must remain vigilant. The backlash is strong from both women and men. Some men accused of sexual harassment and forced to step down are reappearing without making amends or taking responsibility for what they did or the organizational cultures they created. All of our gains could be lost if we do not stay focused on creating more respectful, equitable, and inclusive workplaces that hold people accountable for bad behavior. What has worked in your organization?     Photo courtesy of VisualHunt (CC0 1.0)]]>

Why Training and HR Fail to Stop Sexual Harassment: What Organizations and Individuals Can Do

One of the patterns emerging in recent sexual harassment cases brought to light by the #MeToo movement is the failure of human resources (HR) departments in many organizations to respond to sexual harassment complaints from employees. In fact, we’ve heard example after example of HR enabling retaliation against accusers, protecting powerful men who are accused, or simply dismissing complaints with only cursory investigations or none at all. Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell of the New York Times explain that although employees are told to report mistreatment to HR, HR is often not the right place to go. The authors explain that there are various inherent conflicts in HR’s role:

  • HR is charged with protecting the company from liability and therefore faces a conflict of interest when also expected to protect employees. In other words, HR’s main client is the company and the senior leaders.
  • Scheiber and Creswell note that “even if human resources officials conclude that the accused should be disciplined or fired, they typically have no independent authority to make it happen.”
  • HR personnel are subject to the same power dynamics as other employees if they recommend termination of a valuable employee and incur the wrath of a senior executive—their own job could be at risk.
Another issue the #MeToo movement is bringing to light is that sexual harassment prevention training does not prevent sexual harassment. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes that research shows that corporate sexual harassment training, at best, only teaches people basic information. At worst, it can make people uncomfortable and reinforce gender stereotypes. Most often, the training is rejected as a waste of time because people view it as either legalistic or impractical because it does not teach people how to stop harassment when it occurs. In fact, most sexual harassment training exists because the Supreme Court mandated it in workplaces in 1998 so companies could avoid liability in sexual harassment lawsuits. Most organizations are just checking this box for their own protection and not for actual prevention of sexual harassment. Miller suggests that, to prevent harassment in all forms, “companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect.” Here are some ways to create this type of culture:
  • Offer bystander training to give everyone the skills to stop disrespectful behavior by coworkers.
  • Involve white men in delivering bystander training so discouraging sexual harassment is seen as important to white men as it is to women and minorities.
  • Promote more women. Miller notes that companies with more women in management have fewer sexual harassment incidents.
  • Pay and promote men and women equally.
  • Create gender-balanced teams, hiring panels, and performance review panels.
  • Give dozens of people in the organization responsibility for receiving complaints so people can talk to someone they feel comfortable with and are not limited to HR, where they may not feel safe.
  • Institute proportional consequences for harassers. Consequences should reflect the severity of the offense. Automatic firing is not the solution. Nip small offenses in the bud.
If you work in an organization without the supporting practices and structures described above, Marty Langelan shares these tested tactics for discouraging sexual harassment on the Ms. blog:
  1. Use an all-purpose statement such as “Stop harassing women. I don’t like it—no one likes it. Show some respect.”
  2. Name the behavior, and don’t smile when you say it.
  3. Use an interruption tactic, such as a time-out gesture, to cut off the behavior.
  4. Force the person to explain him- or herself. Langelan suggests asking questions such as “Why do you think it’s okay to ask me to give you a massage?”
  5. Organize consistent group action against a persistent harasser. Agree on what you will all say to him or her, and repeat that statement whenever the bad behavior occurs.
  6. Document the incident on the spot with your phone’s camera or a written record.
  7. Use short, direct statements to give the harasser feedback on why his or her behavior is inappropriate and what behavior would be better.
  8. Use basic self defense if you are physically attacked. Take an aikido class if you can.
  9. If you are a bystander, speak up.
  10. Recruit unexpected allies, including the bully’s buddies.
Langelan recommends using consistent, everyday interventions to redefine workplace cultures. If your organization is not doing enough to create a safe workplace culture, organize your colleagues to work together. You can make a difference, but not alone.   Image courtesy of T’ruah (CC BY 2.0)]]>