Bias in the workplace
Being a working woman isn’t easy. As evidenced by the recent scandals at Uber and Fox News, sexual harassment is still rampant in many workplaces, revealing company cultures that treat women as entertainment accessories rather than equal players.
Although less invasive, gender biases and stereotypes are foundational to a sexist culture that makes such harassment possible – a culture that insists that women are less valuable and less intelligent than men.
Contributing to the ceiling
Deb Liu, vice president of platform and marketplace at Facebook, points out that gender stereotypes are more than just a nuisance – they actually limit what women can achieve in their careers.
Studies show that women who belong to a parent-teacher association are 79 percent less likely to be hired.
They will be offered a significantly smaller salary, because recruiters question their commitment to their career. While it may be legitimate to question a candidate’s work-home balance, male candidates with children are not penalized in the same way as women.
The golden question
Fortune.com asked Liu “How can women respond to gender stereotyping at work?” Liu encourages readers to call out gender stereotypes when you hear them, pointing out that “Each time we let stereotyping go by without calling it out we… tacitly agree that stereotyping is okay. These missed opportunities allow gender stereotyping to persist.”
But how do you call it out?
It’s especially difficult to call out gender stereotypes because you might just get stereotyped again. If you respond with hurt or offense, you may be told that you are being too emotional, oversensitive, or hysterical, or you might get a reputation as the one who always pulls the “gender card.”
While Liu recommends calling out gender stereotypes, her method may work for some better than her others.
The examples she gave were fairly straightforward. For example, when a male coworker described a female job candidate as “too bossy,” Liu responded, “Please don’t say that. You wouldn’t use that term to describe a male candidate.”
Liu’s response does two things.
First of all, it sets up a boundary of acceptable behavior. Setting a firm boundary can be particularly helpful if you don’t have the time or emotional energy to help someone unpack their bias. Simply saying “I don’t care for that type of language, please don’t use it around me,” may not cause the person to magically transform their bias, but it will give them something to think about, and will remove the offending behavior from your immediate vicinity.
Pointing out how a word or stereotype would be applied differently to a man is also helpful. The Family Circle First Lady Cookie Contest apparently seemed like a cute idea for many years, until Hilary Clinton ran for office. The idea that a “first husband” would bake cookies to help his wife’s campaign seemed embarrassing – which illuminated how absurd the entire concept was in the first place.
What worked well for Liu is these call-outs, because her coworkers were willing to examine their language and then clarify more specifically what they really meant. A coworker who described Liu’s meetings with the loaded term “gossipy” was forced to get specific and point out that the chatty, casual atmosphere of the meetings didn’t suit him.
Asking someone directly “what did you mean by that?” can be a powerful way to call out a stereotype.
If you simply label the person as sexist, they may go on the defensive. Asking what they meant gives the person the benefit of the doubt that they may not have meant to put down someone, while also subtly but directly challenging them to explain their meaning in a thoughtful way. If they are simply being biased, they’ll probably stutter and mumble and realize their embarrassing mistake. If they didn’t really mean to be sexist, they’ll be encouraged to find a way to say what they meant that doesn’t rely on a gender stereotype.
As Liu explains, “Making implicit gender stereotypes explicit and openly confronting them… pushes us to challenge those notions, which ultimately benefits us all.”
Taking this strategy one step further
Liu makes some great suggestions, and I’d like to add my own – and remind readers that these strategies work for gender biases (both men and women), but could also be applied to stereotypes about race, sexual orientation, or other identity factors.
One strategy is to recast the offensive comment in the light of the person’s more positive values or behavior.
For example, I might say, “Kristen, I’ve always noticed how respectfully you treat the men in the office. So I’m surprised to hear you use such a loaded term to describe Jason.” Once again, you reduce the likelihood that the person becomes defensive by assuming (or at least pretending to assume) that they didn’t mean to be sexist. This strategy helps close the cognitive gap in people who think of themselves as open-minded and fair, but still unconsciously exhibit bias.
If you can afford the emotional vulnerability, it can sometimes be helpful to respond by expressing your feelings.
This strategy works best with people who already respect you and care about how you feel. Point out how stereotypes about women, even when applied to someone else, make a hostile work environment for you. For example, at a past job, when we hired an older woman to join our team, I heard a man jokingly ask, “whose grandma is that?” I let him know that while his joke may have seemed innocent, it made me nervous to wonder if I would feel out of place or lose the respect of my coworkers as I aged. When he thought about me, someone he respected, being the butt of such a joke, he realized his error and apologized.
Besides learning the delicate art of calling out bias, we need to also train ourselves to receive such feedback well, in whatever form it comes.
Requiring women to not only process stereotypes, but to do so calmly, eloquently, and effectively, and then to deal with the backlash, is a lot to ask (especially after being told to be calm and sit down for so many generations).
Hearing a gender stereotype can be a truly demoralizing experience. Have compassion for the fact that a coworker may feel vulnerable, hurt, angered, or frightened, so their response may not always be graceful, be they male or female.
Practice makes habits. Make good habits
Whatever your strategy, don’t give up! Bias is everywhere, so you’ll have lots of opportunities to practice. It’s an unfortunate burden that women have to carry, but a necessary one.
Only by calling out stereotypes when we see them can we begin to challenge these unconscious biases and create a more equal workplace.
May 13, 2017 at 7:57 am
I’m calling out inequality between women.
Everyone seems to be ignoring the two most basic issues in feminism. First, feminist leaders are creating inequality between women. Second, feminist followers are choosing to live with inequality between women.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is going full steam ahead in creating inequality for its own members. NOW is denying voting rights to its own members. This is an election year for NOW’s president and vice-president. Members can vote only if they attend the national conference in July. NOW leaders chose Orlando, Florida in the middle of the Florida peninsula for this election conference. Orlando is about as far away from the rest of the country as is possible to get. No absentee voting. No voting through chapters. No voting for members who do not have the money, transportation, time, or substitute care for children, parents, and/or spouses to attend the conference.
What’s even more frightening is that NOW members choose inequality for themselves by making choices similar to the choices Trump supporters make. They keep choosing to let elitist leaders create inequality for them and between them.
Why are NOW members making choices that are similar to the choices Trump supporters make? Trump supporters chose a president who plans to take basic necessities away from them. NOW members chose an organization that takes voting rights away from them. Why? Self-sacrifice for the greater good? Their self-sacrifice benefits elitist leaders, but neither Trump supporters nor NOW members see that. If Trump supporters are unintelligent, what does that make NOW members?
Elitist leaders work for their own interests, no matter what they promise to do or whom they make promises to. How many other feminists are making choices that support elitist leaders?
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