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?

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