Three common biases women encounter at work

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad.  The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says:   “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” How is this possible?

If you haven’t figured out that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, then I made my point: unconscious bias is everywhere – whether you’re a man or a woman!  But don’t kick yourself for it – you’re hardly alone.

As we’re approaching IWD, I want to share some of the most common biases women encounter at work.  Let me know if any of these sound familiar:

  1. All she needs is more confidence.

Call it confidence, call it Gravitas, or any other strong, extroverted, Presence-based characteristic.  The lack of these attributes often stop women from progressing.    The more heavily-influenced a company (or part of it) is by male presence, the more likely it is for women to be considered less capable if they don’t command a room or a meeting.

This is of course a fallacy.  In many cases, women appear less confident only in scenarios when they are the minority, i.e. in male-dominated groups.  We all feel a level of discomfort (even if we rarely acknowledge it) operating in an environment that is less familiar.  Many men admit to this feeling when they enter a room full of women – or find themselves at the school gate with a group of mums.  All of a sudden, our confidence appears to ebb.

But competence doesn’t.  A competent person remains competent in both scenarios, even if it may not seem that way.  In fact, rarely are competence and confidence correlated.  And if we believe this, then why do we pay so much attention to a person’s confidence?

In other words, she doesn’t need more confidence; she needs more acceptance and appreciation of her competence.

  1. We always hire the best candidate, regardless of background

If only that were the case!  We want to believe that’s what we do but the data shows otherwise.  It shows that we’re slaves to our unconscious affinity – or ingroup – bias.

We may not be aware of it, but a person who is more like us will come across more capable, credible, trustworthy and likeable than a person who isn’t.  We actively solicit, pay attention to and favour the contributions of ‘ingroup’ members.  This also means that we are much more likely to overlook, overhear or disregard the strengths of a person who is different from us.

When that happens, we also do this: we justify to ourselves why the person we really like is also more capable, and therefore, the better candidate.

Yes, we all do this.

Truth be told, there is no such thing as true meritocracy.  All our decisions have a strong influence of bias – in this example, affinity  (or ingroup) bias.

So next time you prefer one candidate to another, and that preferred candidate happens to be more like you than the other, put your preference to the test:  scrutinise it like someone who is advocating for greater diversity.  Is the ingroup candidate really the better candidate or might your view be influenced by something other than objective criteria?

  1. ‘Great work, Rachel!’   ‘Thanks, but I’m Susan.’

It is both astonishing and embarrassing to reflect on the number of times women have told me how their names are mixed up with other women.

Think about it:  there are 2 women in a meeting of 8 and the men struggle to keep them apart.  What does it say about the value they assign to these women?  How much regard do they hold for them?  If they cannot remember who  is who, how likely are these women to be taken seriously?

Of course, this isn’t a malicious thing.  We know that.  But, gentlemen, next time you confuse two women, think about what this means and how you think of them at work.  Think also about the last time you confused two men who are like you.  Surprised you can’t think of an incident like that?

Ladies, if this happens to you, I encourage you to (politely) correct the situation.  That ought to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As we go into a day/week/month of celebrating the many wonderful women around us, let’s remember these commonly-perpetrated microaggressions, let’s identify them, talk about them, and find ways to challenge them.  We do this not only to respect our fellow female colleagues, but to improve everyone’s wellbeing and performance at work.  And isn’t that a worthwhile endeavour? #ChooseToChallenge

If you liked this post, you might also like In the Wake of IWD – What are we really saying?

In the wake of IWD2016 – what are we really saying?

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Last week’s international woman’s day seems to have been the most popular we’ve had in a long time. Every company, organisation and network seems to have put on a celebration or event to mark the occasion.  Much has been written about it and pledges have been undertaken to change the balance between men and women at work and in the economy.

But what strikes me most of all is how much talk there is about women being the solution for the upcoming future. By this I mean that there is much research and insight to point to the fact that organisations that don’t take gender balance seriously are said to be walking on thin ice; organisations that are refusing to change will see others who will be prepared for the future pass them by.  In other words, it is no longer the right thing to do or the nice thing to do for your business; ensuring that teams work on inclusive insights and that our leaders either possess many feminine leadership traits or are indeed women with those traits now appears to be a strategic priority.

Much is written directly about the influence and the impact of feminine leadership on business in the future.  Take for example John Gerzema’s and Michael D’Antonio book “The Athena Doctrine”, which is based on research and surveys of 64,000 individuals.  Published in 2013, the authors show that innovation and creativity can only be driven if one embraces feminine traits and values.  Having tried hard to resist talking in terms of gender, John and Michael succumbed to the overwhelming evidence that makes a strong case in favour of gender balance.  The book makes it clear that the different way men and women think and behave (in general) cannot be disregarded and that society’s values are changing to reflect those that are traditionally female.  John and Michael talk about a new operating system that includes as many feminine traits as it does masculine.

Much is also written about the leadership styles of the future that – although not directly referencing feminine traits, talks about them as central to the success of any future business.  Take for example the fact that millennials today don’t want to work for companies the sole mission of which is to increase shareholder returns.  They care about the world as much as they do about their jobs. They no longer want to perform a task that contributes only to lining their own pockets.  They care about legacy; they care about the environment; they care about social solutions to existing problems, all of which requires a different type of thinking. So what we read and hear about is how to work in teams and collaborate; how big decisions should bubble up from the surface rather than being pushed down from the top; we read about motivating and encouraging each other to perform the best we can and about valuing the differences that we each bring as individuals in the name of creativity and innovation.  Name them as such or not, these are the so-called ‘feminine’ traits:  collaboration, motivation, valuing others’ point of view, supporting each other and nurturing – these are the things that women tend to do more naturally than men.  And now it seems that these behaviours are becoming a central point of a successful business; they are no longer the ‘nice to have’s’ for a pleasant working culture; they are the central machination of a successful working team.  A company that embraces these traits and values is more likely to succeed in the future than one that doesn’t.

But it is not just the survival of a business that makes this new operating system so relevant.  This operating system also allows companies to utilise these attitudes as a competitive advantage.  Creativity, innovation and diversity of thought are the cornerstones of ideas that lead to the discovery of new markets, the design of new products and the launch of new services.  This new operating system allows companies to experience the world in a way that their customers might do and they might not.  Once we learn to experience our surroundings from the point of view of another we start seeing things and solutions that weren’t apparent before.  This new mindset that opens our eyes to things we haven’t seen before is what’s going to make the difference between the company that survives and the company that thrives.

I have always believed in gender diversity – in its very basic form – diversity of thought and the value of the individual as a strategic priority for any business.  It now seems that those who share my views are becoming more outspoken.  If you are a business that wants to see itself thrive in the future then I suggest you start listening to those outspoken voices.

Rina Goldenberg Lynch