Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Jen Bower, female MBA student, was initially at peace with the judges’ decision. She was disappointed that her team wasn’t moving on to the next round in their case competition, but she was understanding, thinking that the teams moving on must be more qualified. But as she watched the all-male finalists present, Jen was shocked to realize that some of the teams’ presentations were worse than the ones the eliminated mixed-gender teams had given. These eliminated teams had been more qualified to move on to the next round. So why hadn’t they? The only plausible explanation was that the judges were discriminating against the teams based on the gender of the teammates.
As Jen’s story illustrates, women do experience gender discrimination in the workplace and other business settings—gender discrimination isn’t a hurdle that we’ve already fought and overcome; it’s a hurdle that women face today. While numerous countries have made substantial progress towards gender equality, it might be surprising to learn that nearly 95% of people have innate prejudices. In order to create a welcoming space for women in every workplace, it’s important that we fight gender bias in ourselves and in the larger workplace.
But, how to fight?
We’ve all heard about gender inequality. For some of us, that reality may seem hazy. But for many of us, it’s a very real, current reality. And most of us don’t see ourselves as propagating negative stereotypes: we think of ourselves as open-minded, willing to work with everyone, past “archaic” gender-based biases. However, multiple titled researchers have proven that men and women alike struggle with internalized sexism—and it’s not easy to spot. To fight it, start with a simple process of three steps: understand, recognize, and speak out.
1) Understand gender bias
The first step to fighting gender bias is understanding it. Gender bias, according to a definition by the American Psychological Association, is a "variety of stereotypical beliefs about individuals on the basis of their sex.” This bias can be either conscious or unconscious. Conscious bias is marked by intentional harassment and exclusion, such as the past exclusion of women from the military and from STEM careers. It is less common than its sibling, unconscious bias, which is more subtle.
How does unconscious bias work?
In unconscious bias, the brain makes rapid, often unfair judgements about people or groups based on past experiences. This bias is often expressed through language, such as when the pronoun “he” is used to represent people of all genders. Understanding the two types of gender bias is an important step to begin dismantling it, as it allows us to start to recognize bias in ourselves.
2) Recognize bias in yourself
The second step in fighting gender bias is to recognize it in yourself. But if so much of gender bias is unconscious, how can you recognize it?
First, pay attention to how you talk and think about gender in the workplace. Are there certain attitudes or beliefs that you are attributing to women or men as a whole? Think on those. Next, determine what underlying assumptions inform your beliefs. You’ve just made a list of your mental beliefs about men vs. women’s roles in the workplace: why do you believe those things?
Not sure where to start? Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test can which can help you pinpoint your unconscious biases through word association. Give it a shot! Taking some time to examine your own gender biases may seem like a small thing, but it’s a crucial step toward creating a more equitable workplace.
And—don’t get discouraged if you struggle to identify your biases. It’s a process that is difficult for all of us, but it’s what makes the greatest difference. If you don’t feel that you’re making progress, try reaching out to a trusted friend who’s on a similar mission. Ask your friend to point out some of your biases. Try talking about difficult subjects—ideally with others of different mindsets. Familiarizing yourself with fresh viewpoints will help you to realize where you might be stuck in a rut of bias that you never realized.
3) Speak out against bias
As you identify your unconscious gender biases, your third step is to speak out against them. Here are some key ways that everyone can speak out:
Advocate for the good things that women are doing in the workplace. All of us can notice and celebrate the contributions of women in myriad ways—for example, don’t be afraid to recommend capable women for work projects and promotions.
Pay attention to gender dynamics in the workplace. Are men cutting women off in meetings? Are men and women evaluated based on equal criteria? Notice any disparities between genders and use your voice to advocate for change.
Respond to instances of gender bias in the workplace. If you hear someone make an incorrect statement about gender bias, respond to them either right then or in private.
Consider making gender bias training a focal point. Addressing and taking action in the face of gender bias will help create a safer space for women, allowing them to thrive.
Men, we can't do it without you. It’s important to use your positions and voices to stand up for women. At the same time, it’s important for women to be similarly engaged. Don’t just stand idly by—make your voice count!
Gender bias is hard. It’s slippery, often invisible, lurking in our everyday thoughts, shaping how we interact with those around us—and even how we see ourselves. However, it’s also something that we can overcome if we take the time to understand and recognize it. The process of understanding certainly isn’t an easy one, but it’s a necessary one if we want to create an equitable workplace for everyone.
And—it’s not just understanding and recognizing; it’s speaking out, making waves, having uncomfortable conversations, fighting with our words and our conversations. Fighting gender bias is such an important step for anyone, especially those who work in international business! In that world of interacting cultures, fighting against bias is will help you to support and appreciate all of today’s diversity.
Let us know in the comments below one step you are going to take to fight gender bias in your workplace!