Gender bias – it exists. What can we do about it?

The first thing that happens when you talk about gender bias to men and successful women is them ‘pooh-pooing’ it. They say it’s all in your head. Honestly, I was in this category a few years ago and I felt justified. I relied on the logic that everyone is responsible for their own courage and career. I never seemed to notice any gender bias towards me and therefore believed it did not exist. The worst thing was I thought myself to be unbiased. But the very fact that I did not believe in bias made me biased!

From childhood days, I had abhorred any discrimination on being a girl or woman and I called it out often – many times sentimentally hurting my parents who were in those days one of the most broad minded parents one could have. If anyone said girls shouldn’t ride bikes, I would do that – and I tried it too.

Anyway, the POSH Act finally saw the light of the day in 2013 and in 2014 while attending various trainings on this topic, I started hearing stories. Stories I had put up a wall against earlier. These were anonymous women – it was easy to feel they were somewhere out there and did not belong to the community I interacted with. Around this time, I was invited by a very elegant and influential lady to be part of a NGO called eWIT. Although I did not believe women needed ‘empowerment’, I also started noticing that there were very few women in leadership positions. I did not see any harm in becoming a part of the NGO even though the tag ‘feminist’ did not sit well with me.

Exposure to a different world made me relook at mine again with a new set of eyes. I started noticing a lot of things I had failed to see before. I realised that I had my own carpet in my mind under which I was sweeping away non-conformist thoughts and feelings. I had bias. The reflection in the mirror looked ugly. Among what I was hearing, was a particular scathing comment about a woman leader that she was ‘not there’. Earlier, these comments would had had me nodding my head. I started looking at it again with my new set of eyes. She had proven many times success with her customers and her team. The same results by a man would have been appreciated and lauded. She was a go-getter. Yes, there were mannerisms and minor tweaks she could make – but was it such a big deal to deny her a promotion even though she had turned around a difficult customer and grown an account?

Character assassination of women (and men) happen all the time in corporates. Unfortunately, these comments are not forgotten. They are given sanctity during the reviews and there are no facts or examples asked for. Everyone just nods.

So, what can one do about this?

  1. Look at the mirror and be conscious of your bias. Use conversations as an opportunity to learn about different life circumstances and impact on career. This does not mean you need to use their lenses but understanding the power and having clarity about their beliefs rather than judging them.
  2. When someone says they are afraid, don’t belittle that – being afraid is part of being a human – if you do not have fears, you are lying to yourself. It is just that their fears are different from yours – is that too much to believe?
  3. Make sure ideas are heard – very often women are interrupted in meetings or interactions. As a leader, be aware that women (and other genders) are often belittled and pick these cues during your meetings. When you listen only to one voice (or type of voice) you are losing an opportunity to have diverse represented views that add value to the arguments and logic.
  4. The most important bias of all – the likeability bias. If Joe or Joanna did the same actions as a leader to turnaround a failing project, Joe would be considered as results-driven and Joanna as ‘pushy’ or ‘aggressive’. This is as per an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School and New York University by professors Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson, respectively about a real-life female entrepreneur’s CV being shared with two sets of participants with just a name change for one of them – Howard instead of Heidi. For all biases, the challenge for us as leaders is to ask for examples as soon as someone is ‘labelled’ – irrespective of gender. Odds are people are just trying to do their job and we allow bias to colour it wrong.
  1. Ask for more from those who don’t have the confidence. This is contrary to how we have been looking at potential. Generally we wait for people to ‘show up’ with their potential – basically display their skills. Be conscious that 90% of us don’t do this naturally and we have also not been taught how to do this. Some of us learn along the way – but we are the ‘privileged’. And as far as privilege goes in my mind – you should use it to lift someone else up. So ask more of the people who are afraid to speak up – and showcase them, which of course is my next point.
  2. Celebrating – Our natural tendency is to clap for those who pat themselves on the back already. We just give them more power under their already strong wings. While this is not wrong – it often takes away the energy to celebrate those on the margins, awaiting confirmation of their strengths. As leaders, after pushing them in the ring, you should also celebrate their momentum. Especially those waiting to hide again behind the curtains.
  3. Give direct feedback – We owe it to all genders to give direct feedback rather than forming half-baked opinions. More so with those who need to be convinced to move forward. I accept that not everyone is ambitious but attempting to fire the ambition requires also providing the fuel of feedback – positive and constructive. Leaders tend to be over-sensitive to give direct feedback to women because of their fear that there will be a break-down. There might be – but it doesn’t mean this cannot be handled. Breaking down is a form of letting go of a fear – and you should respect that and allow it to happen rather than avoiding the conversation completely.

Finally, I want to re-emphasise every human being is different and that first should be accepted. Let’s give each other a hand to overcome bias and make things better for everyone.

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